This is the day they arrived...
These are the words that begin the journey.
Or are they?
The brilliance of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is that it both intimately transcends and intelligently leans into its science fiction roots, somehow finding its wonder and power by delving ever so gently yet with tremendous intentionality in universal questions that impact us both internally and externally.
As a filmmaker, Villeneuve trusts his audience here and it's mind-bogglingly refreshing to watch a film that neither alienates the cinematic outsider nor dumbs down its message for mass consumption. There is no question that Arrival wants to find an audience, it is both a stellar popcorn flick and an accessible, intelligent sci-fi flick, but Villeneuve refuses to compromise artistic integrity for the sake of a few more tickets sold.
Villeneuve doesn't force unnecessary conflicts. Villeneuve doesn't force entertaining yet irrelevant action sequences simply to show off techno wizardry.
Villeneuve tells a story. Intelligently. Patiently. Entertainingly. Absolutely beautifully.
It helps, of course, to have an actress the caliber of Amy Adams guiding the production. From the opening moments when she first meditatively utters the words "This is the day they arrived...," Adams is in command as Dr. Louise Banks, a world-renowned professor of linguistics with an air of resigned melancholy about her fueled by a tragic yet relatable life experience.
Adams's Dr. Banks is a woman whom we are instantly drawn to, a woman who feels both of another world yet surprisingly "girl next door." She resides in a beautiful lakeside home, yet it is her we are drawn to. She is intelligent, far moreso than you or I, yet she feels like the kind of woman with whom soul-level conversations are the normal.
We love her. Adams makes us love her.
When Colonel Weber, played with a stoic humanity by the always sublime Forest Whitaker, arrives at her doorstep inviting her into a journey of first contact, it feels both unbelievable and yet like just another day at the office.
The first contact in question involves the arrival on Earth of twelve oblong-shaped ships, or something resembling ships, in inexplicable locations. Hovering just above the ground, these ships remain unexplained throughout much of Arrival, despite the quiet transparency of their occupants. In a stroke of mastery, Villeneuve avoids turning Arrival into the usual "aliens invade Earth" sci-fi tripe. Instead, working from a script by Eric Heisserer based upon a short story by Ted Chiang, Villeneuve serves up a more well reasoned and thoughtful exploration of the real and true "what ifs" surrounding the arrival of alien life.
Villeneuve isn't simply frightened of the aliens. He, instead, seeks to understand them.
Working alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks begins the slow task of seeking to create common ground despite encountering a language unknown to humanity. This isn't to say that there isn't anxiety surrounding the arrival of the aliens...indeed, it is never perfectly clear whether their intentions are destructive or benevolent.
Yet, the anxiety is quieter even as it intensifies once the fragile cooperation of the twelve nations involved dissolves into mistrust and secrecy. Yet, even at its height there's a difference between this conflict and the conflicts we're so used to seeing in Independence Day or War of the Worlds type drivel.
Arrival needs to succeed at the box-office. I need you to make it succeed, because Arrival is the type of intelligently manifested, freshly created story we've been begging for every single time we lament Hollywood's creating of yet another sequel or remake or franchise. It's the kind of intelligent sci-fi flick that doesn't come around that often with films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact and Interstellar most coming to mind when I reflect upon the experience I had watching watching Arrival.
Dr. Louise Banks isn't the kind of role that attracts much in the way of awards attention, though it is Adams's performance that carries Arrival and helps turn it into one of the most satisfying sci-fi experiences in recent years. If you watched Adams in the cinematic adaptation of Doubt, you watched a master class in acting given by an actress whose every moment and word and unspoken communication became relevant and rolled into a cinematic ball of complexity. Adams gives Dr. Banks similarly complex shades, a potentially one-note role transformed into one that ripples in complexity like soundwaves across time. One can only hope that after five Oscar nominations, Adams may be knocking on a win between this performance and her work in the upcoming Nocturnal Animals. She is ably supported by Jeremy Renner, whose own underrated status as an actor wisely and intuitively finds his place within this universe and leans into it with strength and intelligence and a refreshing lack of faux conflict that writers and directors so often like to force into these types of roles.
The film is based upon Ted Chiang's Nebula Award-winning story from 1998, "The Story of Your Life," and that story's essential themes remain largely intact. Arrival is about more than you think it is, but it's also about less than it possibly could be. The film's themes are both universal and intimate, timely and timeless.
There are other things I want to say about the film. There are other reveals and themes and ideas put forth in the film that will have you discussing it long after you've left the theater, but these are best left to be discovered yourself while sitting in the theatre. These simply aren't for me to share.
For me, the best science fiction films find a way to co-exist, sometimes peacefully and sometimes with great conflict, in both alien worlds and deep within the human experience. This is precisely what happens in Arrival, a film as comfortable with universe-twisting ideologies as it is with the intimate, perhaps universal, experiences of communication, grief, discovery and trust.
With a resolution that is both intellectually satisfying and emotionally honest and uncompromising, Arrival is one of the most entertaining and beautifully realized films of 2016.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic