I didn’t realize how much I needed Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” after this bruising and emotionally-draining presidential campaign until I was in the theatre watching it. This is a film of both intellectual and emotional ideas, and I needed both after this past week. When my wife previewed it last week, she mentioned Robert Zemeckis’s “Contact” as a point of reference, but I would also included “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” in the mix, as well. In all four of these films, science-fiction concepts are at the mercy of the heart of all four of these movies’s protagonists, but somehow, “Arrival” stands out among them as maybe the best one, because the full nature of Louise’s emotional pull to the concepts within the story is not fully understood until the very end, and when we do understand, we are as terrified of the implications as we are moved by what they mean for Louise.
This is the first film I’ve properly reviewed of Villeneuve’s, after I put off his last two Hollywood films, “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” until long after they left theatres. Those two films are pretty terrific in their own ways, but “Arrival” surpasses them both, because the as good as both films are, they feel ultimately cold compared to “Arrival,” although given the subject matter of both, that is very much by design. The uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of Hugh Jackman’s daughter in “Prisoners” leads him down a truly dark path, and the moral ambiguity at the heart of America’s drug war leads to disillusionment for Emily Blunt’s DEA agent. Meanwhile, Amy Adams’s Louise is “Arrival” has a spiritual and emotional awakening by the time the credits roll in this film. When we meet her at the beginning of the film, she has memories of a daughter lost to cancer that cannot be overcome. One day, she goes to her job as a language professor at a university when the unthinkable happens- aliens make their way to Earth, causing panic and raising the spectre of military intervention when 12 different ships land in 12 different areas, none terribly notable, around the globe. Not long after, she is visited by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) with an invitation to try and decipher the alien language allowing for communication with them. She says that she is unable to do so simply from an audio recording- she has to be there and interact in person. The Colonel refuses at first, but when his next option doesn’t work out, Louise (Amy Adams) gets her wish, and is off to Montana with Weber and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). They only have limited time with the aliens, and each site is doing their own attempts to communicate, but Louise finds that the first step in the process is to trust them. They make great strides when that occurs, but it also takes a significant toll on her. Her memories and mind become further rattled, and when one of the aliens says two, simple words, “Use weapon,” the whole world is on alert, and Louise and Ian have to work fast to figure out what that means before the worst happens.
The film is based on a story, Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out,” “Final Destination 5,” the “Thing” and “Nightmare of Elm Street” reboots) shows unexpected depth and purpose in telling this story that you would not expect from the screenwriter responsible for those horror films. The film has a very literate approach- this is not “Independence Day”- and centers around the importance of understanding and communication being essential for humanity. I was reminded of the end of “Close Encounters” especially in how the scientists are forced to improvise a way of communicating with the visitors through music, and though it isn’t quite the same here, Louise must figure out not just what these visitors are saying but how they say it- an important distinction to be made. Fostering a connection through language and communication could mean the difference between a peaceful visitation and World War III, and the stakes are not lost on Louise and Ian, who forge the greatest bond with the two aliens in Montana, whom they name Abbott and Costello, especially when human nature takes over and the countries whom have experienced visitations give in to their worst assumptions and isolate themselves. That leads to some of the least authentic moments of “tension” in Heisserer’s screenplay, but also the most believable because, let’s face it, humans in positions of power never want to admit that they are wrong. It’s manufactured drama, but dramatic, nonetheless, because it also leads to the most surprising revelation of the film, which is the emotional one Louise comes to that turns our understanding of her journey in the film upside down. More than anything else in the movie, that reminds me especially of “Interstellar,” but it works much more effectively because the concepts it raises are intellectual in nature, and not necessary for the film to work. In “Interstellar,” the entire film turns on what the end speaks to in terms of the reality of the film. Here, it is a pleasant addition to an already compelling narrative.
Villeneuve’s next film is the “Blade Runner” sequel no one had been particularly clamoring for, but the truth is, “Arrival” suddenly makes that a much more enticing prospect. Although he is a compelling visual filmmaker, I hadn’t really seen anything in either “Prisoners” or “Sicario” to make me excited by him as a director in using production design and visual effects to tell a story- “Arrival” changes that. Though the film is rooted in a strong sense of reality, the design of the spacecrafts, and aliens (along with their method of communication), are richly detailed and compelling, and not just rehashed ideas from previous movies. Adding to the sense of intrigue and mystery in the film is a score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that keeps him at the forefront as one of the most original and interesting film composers working now. Ultimately, though, what really resonated with me in this film was Amy Adams’s performance as Louise. Her words set up the movie and end it, and the emotional journey she goes on carries us in ways we don’t expect, and her character doesn’t expect. This is a film of ideas where the heart takes priority, and the mind must work overtime to work things out. It’s an unforgettable saga, and a film that rates as one of the finest science-fiction films in recent memory.