“Come back to me.”
When one thinks of science fiction films, “emotional” is not usually a word that comes to mind. There is, of course, emotion in sci-fi — but the genre tends to lend itself more towards the analytical; the scientific; the quantifiable. Deep-seated emotion isn’t an anomaly in sci-fi, but it’s not altogether common.
So Denis Villeneuve’s haunting, beautiful, challenging Arrival might catch some off guard, especially because the film’s emotional resonance sneaks up on you. Arrival begins like your standard, cold blockbuster: 12 alien spaceships, shaped like mountain-sized rotten apple slices, suddenly appear across the planet. They hover ominously, and humankind looks on in awe and terror. But Arrival is the anti-Independence Day, because once the ships show up there are no big action-packed beats or scenes of mass destruction. Instead, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, let things simmer.
Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, an expert on languages who gets brought in by stoic military man Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) to help decipher the strange sounds the newly arrived aliens are making. Louise is teamed with scientist Ian (Jeremy Renner), and soon the team is boarding one of the mysterious crafts hovering over Montana. Villeneuve stages the scenes leading up to this moment with appropriate tension. When the aliens first arrive, he rather brilliantly has everything happen off camera. When Louise learns of the event via some students during a class she’s teaching, she flips on a TV to watch, but Villeneuve pulls the camera into the background and has Adams blocking the TV so that we can’t see what she’s seeing. Set-ups like this increase the surrealism that would likely accompany alien crafts suddenly showing up on earth one day, and the director ratchets up the unreality with mind-numbing mise en scène. When Louise and Ian first enter the craft, gravity stops functioning normally, and the characters drift down a dark, narrow hallway with a beam of light near the end, recalling Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Ascent of the Blessed.
Once aboard the ship, things get even weirder as the aliens make themselves known: they’re huge Lovecraftian creatures that recall both octopuses and the eerie, giant spiders that were so prevalent in Villeneuve’s Enemy. From here Arrival shifts into analytical mode, with Adams and Renner developing a way to communicate with the aliens, which they soon dub “heptapods.” While it would be impossible for humans to master the sounds the heptapods make, Louise is able to work out a written alphabet with the creatures via the strange ring-like symbols they draw in the smoky air of the ship with squid-like ink.
Watching Adams develop an alien alphabet is more compelling and cinematic than you might imagine, but Villeneuve and Heisserer also realize they need some conflict to take shape. While Louise and Ian’s relationship with the aliens proves friendly and productive, other countries aren’t so lucky with their own alien visitors, and growing threats of attack — from humans, not aliens — begins to build up like storm clouds on the horizon.
And this is where I’ll stop telling you anymore about what happens in Arrival. I am not a hardcore spoiler-phobe by nature, but I urge you to avoid any and all spoilers for this film as long as you can. There’s something that happens early in Arrival that appears to be perfectly straight-forward exposition, but is actually so much more. In the last act of the film, Arrival violently yanks the carpet out from beneath your feet and reveals truths you weren’t even searching for. It’s a reveal so wondrously clever and so emotionally dense that it might take your breath away. I can’t remember the last time I was so utterly, and pleasantly, caught off-guard by a third act development.
Cinematographer Bradford Young bathes Arrival is cold blues and harsh whites, conjuring up stunning, artistic imagery in the process. Through Young’s photography and remarkable CGI work, the alien ships never once ring false. They hover with heft, as dense fog rolls off the surrounding ground and billows around them. There’s an almost organic feel to the objects, as if they had simply been part of the landscape for centuries, unnoticed. All of this is wrapped up in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie, haunting score; a score that seems just as alien in its own right as the hectapods.
Performance-wise, everyone is at the top of their game here. Renner brings a smug likability to his man of science; Whittaker is almost fatherly as the colonel in charge; Michael Stuhlbarg is underused by welcomed as a suspicious CIA agent. But this is Adams’ show through and through, and she is more than up for the task. It’s a quiet, thoughtful performance; the wheels are always turning behind her large, pale eyes. This is not the type of showy, speech-heavy acting that people love to talk-up during award season, but you are unlikely to see a better performance this year.
I don’t put much stock into audience applause at the end of films. Most of the time it feels arbitrary and forced. But as Arrival faded to black, the early-morning audience at TIFF I originally saw the film with all but exploded into rapturous, thunderous applause. Someone sitting behind me practically read my mind when he uttered, in a stunned voice, “Wow…” Arrival is intelligent, emotional sci-fi at its best. It is a film about struggling to find words when there are no words to be found. “Wow” sums it up rather nicely.