Science fiction is a hard genre to tackle. All the great sci-fi films from “Star Wars” to “Blade Runner” have envisioned futuristic settings with such acute sense of aesthetic and thematic weight that any new additions to the genre cannot help but seem derivative. Careful hands must come together to fabricate entire worlds filled with enough idiosyncrasies to provide the fiction a sense of tactility and believability. With “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve manages to create one of the most refreshing science fiction films in recent memory.
Villeneuve knows how to tell a story. The Quebecois filmmaker has had a series of excellent films in the past few years (“Prisoners,” “Enemy,” “Sicario”) each with their own unique qualities. His latest film, “Arrival,” focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is tasked with establishing communication between a mysterious intergalactic force and the United States. All the while, 11 other spacecrafts — dubbed “shells” — have landed elsewhere on earth for other countries to independently investigate.
Moviegoers be warned: “Arrival” is not a blockbuster action flick filled to the brim with explosions and excitement; it is a slow-paced, dialogue-driven experience with unanswerable questions and a remarkable amount of subtlety. A drama at heart, “Arrival” utilizes very few sci-fi elements to tell a story about communication and fate.
One of Villeneuve’s strongest element in previous films is the cinematography. Having frequently collaborated with Andre Turpin and twice with veteran Roger Deakins (including last year’s gorgeously shot “Sicario”), Villeneuve’s latest cinematographer is the talented Bradford Young. Young’s cinematography has few moments to shine in the film, as most shots are relatively standard, but those few moments are exceptional. Close shots of Adams’ solemn face provide faint glimpses of the inevitable pain the audience came to share with her character by the end of the film. Low-angle shots of the shells, as well as beautiful landscape shots, highlight the scale and gravity of the situation — do we view this extraterrestrial lifeform as a threat to mobilize upon or do we establish a basis of communication?
“Arrival” also sees the return of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson in his third collaboration with Villeneuve. Johannsson plays a subtle role throughout the film in strengthening the emotional resonance between the audience and Dr. Banks. In sync with the film’s themes, the first and last sequences in “Arrival” feature a violin-heavy score that would sound corny if paired with less impactful scenes. The first time around, I felt a sense of sadness for simple, superficial reasons that I admittedly think was cheap. However the second time around I had an increased array of knowledge on the characters and nature of the aliens that made the tragedy witnessed at the beginning of the film so much more impactful and gripping.
The performances in “Arrival” are (mostly) solid. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg sell their roles as staunch military men committed to militaristic methods in dealing with alien life. Unfortunately, Jeremy Renner is undeveloped and does not have much to work with. For such a main character, he feels unnecessary at times. This would be a bigger issue if not for Adams’ incredible job as the premier arbiter between the human race and extraterrestrial life. Her subdued performance provokes many questions at first, which could understandably cause much confusion. However, by the carefully handed revelatory point of the film, her character is fully understandable. If nothing else, the emotional depth conveyed in Adams’ performance is reason enough to watch.
The quintessential component of any truly memorable film is interpretation. It’s one thing to watch a movie and have a good time watching it; it is another thing entirely to watch a film that simply spellbounds you and causes you to dwell on the events in the plot, wondering what certain aspects really meant. “Arrival” is that kind of experience. Leaving the theater, I wanted to compose my thoughts instantly but struggled with digesting the material. Much of “Arrival,” while not cryptic, leaves room for questions about the nature of the “gift” that the aliens bestow upon earth. Without traversing the dark route of spoiler territory, suffice to say that the characters in the film — cognizant of it or not — deal with the heavy concepts of determinism and fate.
“Arrival” is not for everyone, but those who enjoy slow burning narratives and cerebral science fiction will be pleased. It’s great to see that Villeneuve understands the machinations behind a good science fiction film, and I cannot wait to see what he will do with “Blade Runner 2049.”