Denis Villenueve’s science fiction tale of peacefully bridging linguistic and cultural gaps could hardly come at a more appropriate societal moment, with financially dominant blockbusters struggling to outdo each other in excesses of quick-witted violence, and a political climate that reached a boiling point a couple of years ago and hasn’t paused to take a breath. Arrival slams the breaks on our all-consuming societal paranoia, forcing audiences to reckon with a slow, deliberate story of bridging inter-species divides and resisting the human urge to violence. Though its final act can’t quite narratively deliver on the near flawless setup, the first half of Arrival is an astonishing feat of visual and sonic immersion; a master-class of tension-building and question-prompting.
Arrival can’t be easily summed up, (nor would it be fair to a reader to attempt to) other than to say that Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, a professor introduced through a brief, touching character sketch built around grief and tragic loss, who is then recruited by a colonel in the US Army (Forest Whitaker) to assist physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating for extra-terrestrial visitors that have appeared over middle-America, along with eleven other places around the globe.
In its slow-moving introduction to characters both human and alien, Arrival feels most akin to a particular subgenre of science fiction that deals in transcendent, quasi-religious narratives of first contact: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Interstellar. Each film posits an ideal human who functions as much as an archetype as a person: Kubrick’s Nieztschean astronaut who subdues humanity’s rebelling technology, Spielberg’s St. Paul-esque convert who follows his bliss, Nolan’s humanist savior of intense paternal love, and now Villenueve’s teacher who fights for empathetic understanding and communication across linguistic gulfs. As in preceding contributions to this generic conversation, Villenueve (paired with cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) crafts sequences that envelopes the audience in sensation, both aural and visual, anchored with cinematic composition that is both precise and beautiful.
Villenueve balks at deception in his set-pieces (rejecting filmmaking built on quick-cutting and shaky-cam to create the illusion of excitement that too often disguises the nonsensical nature of the action), instead guiding his camera in slow, smooth, and deliberate motion that allows the human eye and imagination to engage with every part of what is portrayed onscreen. He worked wonders with this methodology in Sicario to create a near unmatched and pervading sense of tension, and in Arrival he challenges the audience to participate in the work of bridging the gaps between them and the aliens themselves. Most notable is a gorgeous sequence depicting Louise’s arrival at the base camp just beyond the alien ship via helicopter, as the camera slowly swings over a perimeter packed with people desperate to catch a glimpse, through mist, and then into a lush valley, where bleak military tents sit before the cocoon-like vessel as clouds billow in over a ridge like a waterfall and Jóhannsson’s experimental score drifts and echoes alongside. The successive encounters with the alien visitors stand out as unique cinematic achievements, playing with the audience’s expectations, sending one’s mind scrambling to dissect and interpret every piece of aural and visual stimulation. It goes without saying that Villenueve has very quickly asserted himself as a master of atmosphere.
It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, that the final act of Arrival ties the story up in a way that, while tidy and resonant on an individual level, is derivative of previous science fiction films and doesn’t pack quite the bewildering punch that 2001, Close Encounters, or Interstellar do. Perhaps it’s a bit of a high standard to apply, but Arrival clearly aspires to be considered alongside these giants of science fiction (the first encounter here contains a subtle nod to the irreversible moment of touching the monolith in 2001). It may succeed more on the aesthetic front than the narrative front, but that still leaves Arrival a high point of the cinematic year, chocked full of sounds and images that will haunt you long after leaving the theater.