Synopsis – A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications.
My Take – Too often we see science fiction films, particularly involving aliens, that are only interested with how we, as a species, would fight back against them, usually with disaster results (the recent Independence Day sequel & The 5th Wave make a strong point on that). Adding to that, the trailer of this film offers absolutely nothing unaccustomed. At face value, it looks like a dubious ‘Close Encounters’ or a ‘Contact’ wannabe, with a threat of movement towards the likes of ‘Independence Day’. Luckily, after watching it I can say this film is far from your average science-fiction thriller. From the cinematic brilliance of director Denis Villenueve who’s proved himself as a stellar filmmaking talent in ‘Enemy’, ‘Prisoners’, and ‘Sicario’, comes an intelligent sci-fi piece that ditches the typical special-effects action extravagant tropes in favor for some thought-provoking conceptions, emotional jolts and a mesmerizing visual storytelling. Director Denis Villeneuve‘s film is science fiction at it’s absolute deepest and most profound. It’s a ‘thinking mans’ film that forces you to find your own interpretations. Sure to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Blade Runner, Children of Men and maybe even 2001: A Space Odyssey (a bit of a stretch) in the many years to come. The film uses its tagline “Why are they here?” quite literally to deliver one of the most fascinating films you will see all year. The story follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is grieving the loss of her young daughter, Hannah. Every morning, she arrives in the university to teach her regular class, but something is different about today. Wide scale panic is rising in the population as twelve alien space crafts have positioned themselves strategically around the world for unknown reasons.
Due to her top secret clearance & her previous work with Homeland security, Banks is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead a team and figure out a way to communicate with the aliens & find out where they come from & why are they here? Banks faces the biggest challenge of her academic career in trying to devise a strategy for communication without any foundation of knowledge on what level communication even works at for them. Assisted by Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, the pair try to crack the code against a deadline set by the inexorable rise of tensions around the world. This film is a story about the power of communication, the illusory nature of time, and the importance of words and language in creating our conception of the world. Written by Eric Heisserer from the short story, ‘Story of Your Life,’ by author Ted Chiang, it is a thinking person’s science fiction film that does more than offer bad guys threatening good guys. While its aliens are no great shakes in the looks department, here they have something akin to brains and are actually trying to teach us something which, given recent historical events, might be problematic. The does more than just provoke thought. It invites question, it craves understanding and most importantly it deserves dissecting, hopefully from someone who is a much smarter writer than I. I think the most interesting thing about this film is how it approaches the alien species. It’s not your typical “take over the world” fiasco climaxing in an action packed third act. It’s a slow, mesmerizing film focusing on the comprehending of language as a barrier of communication between different beings. Unlike Villeneuve‘s previous works, this film isn’t a dark or twisted look at humanity. Instead, Villeneuve chooses to go for a lighter yet still serious tone with the mystery surrounding the arrival of the aliens. That is what makes this film so incredible, Villeneuve injects elements from Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001 to make the story not only visual stunning but also makes it very captivating. the film does not rely on conflict between the humans and aliens to keep you invested and entertained because it remains against that trope. Each time our characters interact with the aliens, who remain covered in mist for most of the screen time, we as the audience gain something new in the form of knowledge and discovery rather then an action set piece. And when we return back to the outside world, we see through the media how each discovery affects it in different ways. What I really admire about Villeneuve as a filmmaker is the choice he makes to not spoon feed the audience with every single piece of information. He instead makes films to challenge the audience, leaving them to either complete the puzzle themselves or question the morality of his characters. Perhaps the strongest aspect here is how Dr. Banks’ own personal story unfolds within the narrative.
There’s no scenes of bloated exposition so the audience can grasp what is happening, here Denis uses that to his strengths. We’re not supposed to fully fathom the themes expressed as that would defeat their purpose. Villeneuve himself does an exceptional job at directing this film. It’s the first massive-scale project we’ve seen from him, but his astonishing ability to create a stunningly eerie and tense atmosphere at every single moment in this film, whether it be in the unnerving sweeping shots of the alien spacecraft, or the smaller, more claustrophobic moments centering on the human characters’ efforts to deal with them, is testament to what a talent he is. Villeneuve has also proved to be a director of utmost talent and diversity, but also the one that surrounds himself with equal talent, this film being no different. Bradford Young‘s (Selma, A Most Violent Year) cinematography and style in depicting the research groups enter the mysterious ships produces some of the most groundbreaking sci-fi scenes that have ever been shot. The ships themselves look like timeless, shapeless monoliths. They defy the laws of physics and seem to have their own atmosphere inside. It is truly a grandiose, terrifying, unknown object. The Aliens inside those ships as well as the surroundings seem to raise more questions then answers, while the ships gloriously ‘stand’ on the backdrop of incredible landscapes, such as oceans, mountains and panoramic plains. And that tense eeriness carries over brilliantly into every other part of the film. For me, one of the most memorable elements of the film was the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Staying effectively silent for so much of the film, Jóhannsson takes an incredibly unique and experimental approach to the music of the film, often making it appear as if it is sound coming from the real world. Prior to approaching this film, a word of warning that it is what many like to call a “thinking person’s sci-fi”. So in case you are expecting some human vs alien action, you are in for the wrong film. Like his previous efforts, the film takes its own time to unfold, commanding your attention due to its slow pacing. Though the slow pace is enough to frustrate some film goers looking for something more exciting and less busy with high-classed ideas, there is no doubt that this makes for a remarkable experience. Amy Adams truly is the star of this film as she carries this film with a sense of gravitas but also vulnerability. She shows a woman who is at first terrified from meeting the newly arrived aliens but gains strength when she learns more. Flashbacks to a tragic event also reveal the struggle she goes through especially as the fate of the world is on her shoulders. Jeremy Renner does a good job as a physicist with a dry sense of humor. Forest Whittaker is also great a the general who isn’t a trigger-happy idiot but someone whose job is just to get answers in order to find the safest and most humane solution possible. Michael Stuhlbarg is good. On the whole, ‘Arrival’ is an enthralling film with some exceptional performances, astonishing direction, mesmerizing score & a perfect screenplay making it one of the most well-constructed science fiction spectacles in recent years.
Directed – Denis Villeneuve
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 116 minutes