For the style of sci-fi which Denis Villeneuve guns for, more along the lines of Interstellar and Gravity than the gory likes of Alien or Prometheus – the idea of Arrival is extremely ambitious. Thankfully, it is successful for the most part. People just don’t make sci-fi films like this anymore. Arrival presents itself as more of a philosophical film, answering the big questions which is perceived to be cornerstone of our universe while masquerading itself with shades of sci-fi to appeal to the mass public. Well at least it tries to. So a warning to those who are expecting this to be an action-packed alien invasion story with a plethora of contraption blowing up; Arrival isn’t for you.
When multiple mysterious monolith-looking spacecraft make an appearance on 12 countries across the globe, linguist expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) for help. She is tasked to decipher the extra-terrestrial beings’ language and ask the ultimate question on everyone’s mind, ‘Why are they here?’. Together with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the team faces a race to decode the alien’s obscure language while the whole world is on the brink of a global war.
What Villeneuve particularly does well in is his ability to seamlessly shift focus between the two themes the film concentrates on; international diplomacy and the nature of betrayal between human beings when a global crisis strikes. It is uncommon, especially for a sci-fi movie to shine a light on such topics, and Arrival does a brilliant job of challenging our minds to a range of thought-provoking questions. It is stimulating in the sense that the script doesn’t spoon feed you the themes but instead makes use of smart imagery and the frequent news broadcasts to drop subtle messages about humanity, philosophy and lack of cooperation among countries.
Villeneuve also doesn’t disappoint in his innate ability to create suspense in so many different situations, even with scenes which don’t necessarily require it, not that I am complaining. While the camera switches from the facial expressions of the characters, we are teased with paranoia before we are finally blessed with the big reveals and the scenes which follow pay off massively. Everything from the landscape surrounding the unidentified ship to the aliens’ enclave are beautifully imagined and I am not surprised after what we got from Sicario which was as beautifully shot (it won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography).
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie compositions nail the crucial moments in the movie perfectly. It doesn’t matter whether it is during the tension filled stretch when we fervently wait for the aliens to be bestowed upon us or the ebb and flow of emotion when the sentimental flashbacks kick in. The score fills the air with a spine tingling sensation, capturing the mood of set pieces perfectly.
But despite all of that, it is perplexing to me why everyone is raving over Amy Adam’s ‘stellar’ performance. Nowhere close to ‘powerhouse’ or ‘the best performance of her career’ as most people are calling it in my opinion. At the same time, it isn’t bad in any degree. She is just a reliable actress who puts in an affecting shift as the intellectual character she plays. While emotionally invoking in scenes which require her to be, there isn’t any standout Oscar moment for her in the movie which stereotypically define the ‘Best Actress’ nomination. The same goes for Jeremy Renner who doesn’t do a lot in the movie other than crack part of the linguistic puzzle and act as a great companion piece to Adams; nothing too extraordinary but nothing too bland as well.
Arrival is one of those movies that you have to watch twice to get the whole picture and fully comprehend all the underlying meanings the director is trying to throw at you (talk about Interstellar done right). You may not like it at first but give it time to marinate in your brain and you may find yourself appreciating it more for what it is. It is very slow burn for sure, but it is one which pays off with a superbly crafted ending and an intriguing third act.
Should you spend money on it? Yes, watch it twice
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario)
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer
Based on: ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Running time: 116 minutes
Genre: Mystery/Science fiction