Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 116 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
While watching Arrival, it was hard not to be reminded of that classic Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man," in which aliens arrive on Earth and there's some miscommunication as to what meaning is intended by their use of the word "serve." Of course, we were too trusting and paid for it with a final twist revealing the episode title to actually be the name of a cookbook. What happens in Arrival could be described as practically the inverse of this, as well as a reflection of just how much has changed since that episode aired in 1962. While the use of a skilled linguist like the protagonist at this film's center could have easily prevented that mishap, there's no protection against the cynicism, xenophobia and paranoia that surely would take over once the aliens arrive. If such an event were to occur and they were here to do us harm, there's a decent enough chance we'd destroy each other before having a chance at destroying them. There's no mistaking that everyone's default setting would now be one of fear and resistance.
Those are some of the many elements director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer get right with their cerebral adaptation of Ted Chiang's 1998 novella "Story of Your Life." It spends so much of its running time knee-deep in science and laying out a fairly plausible scenario that it's almost a shock that its final third is devoted to to huge metaphysical and spiritual questioning. But it shouldn't be, since recent sci-fi seems to have fallen in love with the emotional side of the equation, often to these films' detriments. The cynic in me suspects it's a monetarily driven, heart-tugging device used to get families into the theater. In Gravity, it was the memory of a deceased daughter. In Interstellar, it was the bond between father and daughter that broke the boundaries of time and space.
In Arrival, it's again the memory of a deceased daughter that figures heavily into the narrative, but doesn't quite hurt the film to the point of those other two. It's at least organically factored into the story in a way that it inspires thought, even if, like those aforementioned titles, it lays it on a little thick at the end. But it's really at its best when asking the big question: What are their intentions? In other words, to serve man or to serve man? Or maybe it's something else. Tourists just stopping by for a visit? Villeneuve deliberately goes about answering this in a cold, clinical style before opening the floodgates (and for some the tear ducts) in the final third to ask an even bigger, but not entirely unrelated questions about time, determinism and free will. But of the sci-fi films to attempt it, this proves most successful in at least having the brains and patience to satisfyingly follow through on those ideas.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist teaching at a local university who's frequently distracted by memories of her deceased adolescent daughter, who at some point succumbed to cancer. One of her classes comes to an abrupt end when news reports confirm that twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared to land in various locations across Earth. She's paid a visit by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who's recruiting her and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to head a team in deciphering the language of these multi-limbed visitors, referred to as "heptapods." Despite Louise's initial hesitation, she and Ian are shuttled off to a military camp near one of the spacecrafts in Montana where they'll board and attempt to make sense of a very unfamiliar language, primarily consisting of complicated circular symbols.
For all the headway Louise and Ian make in communicating with these interlopers, the beaurucratic red tape and political unrest between nations make their jobs nearly impossible. Discovering an explanation of the aliens' motives and purpose on Earth proves challenging, unless all the countries' governments can selflessly get on the same page. Louise must also still wrestle with those very fresh, painfully vivid memories of her own daughter, whose life and death seems intrinsically tied to what's happening right now.
It wouldn't be inaccurate to say the film has a set-up that's both narratively and technically masterful, not to mention eerily restrained and realistic. From the moment these mysterious crafts make landfall, there's genuine suspense generated as to its contents, what the aliens look will look like and why they're here. The story's entire framework is heady, relying heavily on visuals and sound effects once the action shifts into the investigation of the ship itself and possible means of communication. Those expecting another Independence Day will either be disappointed or elated that this shares absolutely nothing in common with an action-oriented project like that, more clearly taking its inspiration from more spiritually-minded SF like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And unless you count the familial themes of the former and inherent chilliness of the latter, it's still unfair to claim it closely resembles either of those.
There's real doubt as to how the emotionally fragile Louise will hold up under the physical and psychological pressures of the situation, and at least initially, these concerns are well founded. Heisserer's script makes no bones about the fact that she's a complete mess due to personal tragedy, which seems to be a common, if increasingly tired, affliction affecting female protagonists in sci-fi films. This at least bothers to put somewhat of a new spin on it in the third act, and Adams, the busiest and possibly most over-exposed actress working today gives one of her better internalized performances as Louise in a role that requires quite a bit from her since this isn't an actor's film by any stretch. In fact, the role's kind of subtle, flatlined quality could help explain how the Academy somehow excluded her in the glut of awards season.
Once communication is established to even a minimal extent, the film really soars, offering up fascinating revelations about not only how we'd decipher language in an unusual situation like this, but how we communicate with each other. And Villeneuve believably does all of this step-by-step. Taking a position of empathy and patience with these visitors, Louise fights an uphill battle with Whitaker's hard nosed Col. Weber who wants answer to their motives yesterday, ignoring the fact that charging ahead without the proper preparation and research could have potentially disastrous consequences. There are even points when you wonder why he hired her since he'll clearly do whatever he wishes regardless. Renner's Ian mostly provides a sounding board for Louise's ideas and moral support, until the exact nature of his involvement evolves considerably toward the final act.
This is French-Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve's biggest project yet, having previously directed the well-received Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. It's also unquestionably his most ambitious, working on a grander scale than we're used to seeing him receive and Jóhann Jóhannsson's buzzing, eerily Kubrickian musical score combined with Bradford Young's creepy, atmospheric cinematography and the Oscar-winning sound design help combine to create an experience that likely puts it a notch above most of his previous efforts, at least technically.
Reactions to the emotional territory it veers into will vary, but without giving too much away, the notion of time becomes a key component, or more specifically our perception of it. By daring to ask the question of whether it's worth forging forward with a happy, fulfilling life as planned knowing certain tragedy awaits, the screenplay cleverly subverts our initial expectations, forcing us to place ourselves in the protagonist's shoes. Of course, in doing so, it can't help but get a little mushy, veering away from the scientific angle that initially made the scenario so compelling. Still, it's impossible to deny that Arrival provokes serious thought and rises above most other entries in the genre by primarily relying on emotion and ideas rather than computer-generated theatrics.