During the opening sequence of Arrival, Amy Adams’ Louise Banks narrates: “I used to think I knew where your story begins and where it ends. But now I’m not so sure.” And that’s the best way to approach a review of the science fiction brain-bender from Sicario Director Denis Villeneuve. Not at the beginning. For a science fiction film that realistically considers the “what if” question posed by the arrival of alien invaders, it is the most human film of the year, and certainly one of the best.
With Arrival, Villeneuve continues the recent string of smart, intellectual science fiction on film. From Gravity, to Interstellar and The Martian, sci-fi may be one of the only film genres actually thriving by revisiting its roots — from Andrei Tarkovsky to Stanley Kubrick — as opposed to simply trying to repackage nostalgic feelings of ‘memberrying Star Wars.
Banks, an expert linguist professor with reluctant ties to the military, finds herself face-to-tentacle while attempting to decipher the whale-like bellows emanating from an alien spacecraft. When giant stone-shaped pods arrive on several locations on Earth, jets are scrambled, riots break out in Venezuela and college students abandon their classes, but Louise wanders through it all disinterested and preoccupied with tragedy. Forget “Lady Ghostbusters,” Adams as Louise is everything an actual smart, strong feminist lead character on film should be.
The give-and-take between Louise, her physicist partner Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the visitors they name “Abbott and Costello,” are some of the most beautiful effect sequences put to film this year, and should certainly garner the Oscar for best visual effects. The atmosphere the film creates is stunning, but in its scope it manages to stay quite intimate. It doesn’t unfold over cities and oceans or outer space. It unfolds in small examination rooms.
When it comes to science fiction alien films these days, audiences are rarely caught off guard with the latest, coolest CGI-generated monster alien like an over-the-top gerbil lizard in Cloverfield, or at the other end of the spectrum, Jodie Foster’s dad (are you serious?) in Contact. But Arrival revels in the presentation and using simple design to draw the suspense out from what is unknown. The egg-shaped vessels are dark and ominous enough as they hover above the ground of a lush green mountainside. The aliens are shrouded in ink and fog. If Sigur Ros’ music could be put visually onto film, this is what it would look like.
There is no explanation for why the UFOs look or behave the way they do (even twisting gravity around to mess with our perspective on what we’re watching). When Abbott and Costello emerge to face Louise and her team from behind a thick plate of glass, we get the impression they are contained like zoo animals. Except they aren’t the ones being contained, and a race is on to discover which species may end up destroying which.
The film is ultimately a study in communication. How humans would communicate with an alien species, and ultimately how humans can learn to communicate with ourselves in a world rife with political and military conflict. Given the recent events in our own country, your mind can’t help wander as to how a President Trump himself would handle such an event (Nuke them, big league?).
Arrival is never outwardly political beyond a couple of cliche moments where a right-wing, conspiracy minded radio host plays an integral role in influencing two U.S. soldiers, but the politics of the situation play a key role toward the ending, which offers one of the better twists since M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense. When all is revealed, it hits you straight in the gut with no apologies.
The film’s lesson for humanity is that for us to begin to understand each other again, we perhaps have to start over from the very beginning. Or the very end.
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