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If you’re uneducated on director Denis Villeneuve‘s filmography, I highly suggest you inform yourself sooner rather than later. After Arrival, it’s abundantly clear that this man has an upper-echelon talent behind the camera with no possibility of fading. He will soon be uttered in the same breath as the top working directors today like your Martin Scorseses and Christopher Nolans. His propensity for telling complex stories through distinct, stark imagery, sprinkling in feelings of mystery and suspense throughout every one of his pictures, is currently unparalleled.
Experiencing almost all of Villeneuve’s cinematic stories inspires such bold statements. Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario, and now Arrival act as the masterful evidence. The director’s first journey into science fiction land is what separates Arrival from the rest of the pack. However, upon viewing the previously mentioned 4 titles, you begin to detect Denis’s stylistic narrative choices and meaningful camera movements.
I’m sure after you’ve seen the trailer (which we covered here), you’re wondering what the heck is happening in the latest sci-fi flick. The spoiler-free version, which will be maintained throughout my review, is the government asks linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to aid them in deciphering an alien race’s method of communication after said aliens landed on earth at 12 seemingly-random locations. That’s all the knowledge you need before you surrender yourself to the film.
Arrival sets itself apart from its somewhat generic plot explanation in character, tone, cinematography, and most importantly, message. In character, you have a large focus on Adams as Banks as they efficiently inform the audience of what motivates her. With Adams being such a tremendous actress, she effortlessly displays such a wide range of vulnerable emotions throughout the feature. The writing, directing, and her portrayal explain every difficult choice she makes without leaving room for plot-holes. In this complicated movie, that’s definitely a requirement. I only wish more depth was added for Renner’s character, Ian.
Tonally, Villeneuve achieves many successful homages to sci-fi that’s come before. The hazmat-type suits the military personnel, Louise, and Ian wear when inside the alien ship (called “the Shell” in the film) is reminiscent of the astronaut suits in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire military encampment around the shell and how wary humans are of the alien presence is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. None of these references are without accident, nor do they ever feel too on-the-nose.
Musically, you have Jóhann Jóhannsson returning to collaborate with Villeneuve after Sicario to create an atmosphere of unfamiliarity. The score is as unforgettably, perfectly constructed as Sicario in every way, and one of my favorites of the year. Even though you know you’re watching Earth’s populace react to the UFOs’ presence, through the musical score and cinematography, everyone and thing outside of Louise feels otherworldly and strange. Amy Adams is very much the center of Arrival, and everything around her, even the cameras that are capturing the movie itself, act unnatural and not of this planet in very nuanced ways.
In the larger story, Arrival paints a more hopeful picture of humanity in a relevant and necessary way. The film establishes early that communication is as important with other people as it is with these extraterrestrial beings. As we’ve seen lately in reality, humanity is at its most dangerous when it relies on assumptions to influence its actions, rather than openly talking to each other in a constructive, civilized way. Much of that sentence bleeds into the movie on several occasions. In that regard, Arrival (and, separately, Moonlight, which I’ll be reviewing shortly) become the most crucial films to view this year, especially now. It also explores other themes I can’t even list since they involve spoilers in one way or another, so I simply implore to see this feature for yourself.
I can picture a subset of individuals who would be upset by the “reveals” in this film. Of everyone I’ve talked to or listened to that has seen it, the reaction seems to be split. Some say that when the movie’s climax occurs, it overly complicates an otherwise simple movie about humanity. I’m in the camp that will defend every frame in Arrival until breath leaves my body. The ending is quintessential sci-fi at its best, explained in the context of the plot, and could only be executed by an eloquent filmmaker and storyteller like Villeneuve.
Overall, Arrival serves as both a wake-up call to our society’s current behavior, as well as a reminder about why art and discussions about art matter. As I trotted out of the theater, all people were talking about was what they just witnessed. I heard murmurs of “that was the message I needed to hear” and guesswork about certain key plot points. As our common ground’s square footage starts dwindling, things like movies, music, TV, books, etc. will always connect and unite us. Even if you come out hating Arrival somehow, a work of art (a movie no less) inspired such passion.
Lecturing aside, sci-fi is my favorite genre to ever exist since it allows explorations of otherwise insane ideas that could not possibly exist in other genres. Witnessing Arrival essentially justified everything about why I love Villeneuve as a director, why I love sci-fi, and why I love movies as an art form.