★★★★ / ★★★★
Clearly influenced by exceptional visual storytellers such as Kubrick, Malick, and Spielberg, “Arrival” is one of the most curious and profound science fiction films within the past ten years. It makes intelligent choices throughout, it is consistently grounded in realism, and it works both as entertainment and a statement piece about how humanity tends to respond when confronted with the unknown. Yet despite the fact that it is pointed in how fearing we are as a species, ultimately it offers an optimistic message. It is a work that highlights the importance of education and a willingness to pursue knowledge for these will define our future.
Under Denis Villeneuve’s confident and purposeful direction, the picture grabs us right from the opening minutes using a familiar template. Twelve black monoliths have arrived on Earth and the intentions of those inside are unclear. The world having just declared to be under a state of emergency, various countries where the extraterrestrial aircrafts appear decide to maintain open communication in order to try to figure out what the aliens want. In the US, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) seeks the help of a linguist and a physicist, Drs. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), respectively. They airlift to the farmlands of Montana to establish contact.
Notice how the performances are almost subdued, melancholy, despite incredible events happening all around. It is almost as if the characters are in a constant state of whispering, accompanied by often dim but tightly controlled lighting and shadows. It is an interesting tactic so that we look into the screen a little closer, listen a bit more, feel inner turmoils of those processing a history-defining, life-changing event. By making the characterizations quite small, the importance of the event is all the more amplified. The tension builds, it twists, and it is released at just the perfect moments.
I admired the honesty in the picture’s portrayal of academics. Here, there is no crazed scientist with messy hair who talks really fast and receives confused looks every time he or she spoke. Instead, it shows the linguist and physicist as regular people who are given specific jobs at the military site. They just so happen to be highly intelligent and great at what they do. Sometimes they are shown on the field and other times they simply must sit on their desks for hours in front of brightly lit computers and stacks of papers, trying to make sense or attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle to make a relatively coherent conclusion. In many scenes, they look rundown, exhausted, craving a good night’s rest.
The look of the otherworldly beings, called the Heptapods, are inspired. Even though they do not have a defined face—we see mostly tentacle-looking things functioning as legs—in just about every scene we feel personality emanating from them through the way limbs move, the sounds they make, the various symbols they create. Adams creates a most convincing rapport with them and the scenes where Dr. Banks makes an effort to figure out whether the aliens can truly understand specific aspects of language are so fascinating to see unfold. In a way, these scenes are an extension of Dr. Banks and her students in a lecture hall—which was interrupted upon the day of the monoliths’ arrival.
Based on the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang and screenplay by Eric Heisserer, “Arrival” takes risks by touching upon philosophical musings during the latter third but digesting them in such a way that makes sense for the story and its themes. To say more about its brilliant twist would do this thought-provoking and skillfully made film a terrible injustice.