Arrival (2016) / Sci Fi-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer (based on the story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang)
Review published November 14, 2016
On its surface, Arrival is relating a story we've seen many times before: alien spacecraft have approached Earth, and we have no idea what they want, which leads to a anxiousness and tension for those below as to how to best handle them. Are they friend or foe?
After twelve alien spacecraft have descended to various spots across Earth, American Amy Adams (Batman v Superman, Big Eyes) stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is visited by representatives from the U.S. Army to try to decipher the alien language heard on a recording of their "voices". Unable to process the language without being there in person, she is soon part of a team of scientists who enter one of the spacecraft above Montana in order to speak to the Heptapods (as the squid-like aliens come to be known due to their seven perceptible limbs) directly, on the hope that she can glean enough from their conversation of ink-symbols to figure out just why they've come to our planet before the military in other countries the aliens have descended upon get jittery and determine the best course of action is to obliterate them before they do it to us.
Of course, there's more to the story than that, as we learn early on during several scenes in which we see the heartbreaking story of how Louise raised, taught, and subsequently lost her daughter to a rare disease. The hows and whys of these scenes aren't readily apparent as we get into the alien story, and yet they linger in our subconscious as we try to figure out the direct tie-in to the overall themes of the story in terms of finding ways to communicate through language. While viewers are held clueless on the connection throughout most of the film, that foreknowledge does give an additional layer of thematic material to ponder that has us guessing and second-guessing just what we're witnessing, until director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, Hours) finally brings it all to the forefront for a resonant and satisfying union.
French-Canadian auteur Villeneuve continues his string of through-provoking films, working from a script from horror-script maestro Heisserer, who loosely adapts a short story from 1998 entitled, "Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang. Although it is the first science fiction film in Villeneuve's filmography, shortly to be followed by another in the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner, it does continue his tradition of challenging his audience to try to answer for themselves many of the questions that the director wants us to ponder, placing the burden of explanation on us all, much in the way that the aliens within the film itself are willing to offer more questions than solutions.
One of those questions is whether human beings, who have squabbled with each other whether in the smallest of tribes to the largest of nations, will continue to disagree with one another, even when presented with concrete evidence that there is perhaps a whole universe out there that exists and we are but a small tribe of one. Perhaps cynically, we continue to have differences of opinion with one another, perhaps due to not having one unified leader, government, or common language to help us feel as though we are one race -- the human race.
Although the plot structure is surprisingly simple in design, the story elements and themes are so multilayered that it does put the viewer in the position of having to piece it all together in their mind, not only in some part while it plays, but likely for many hours or days afterward. It isn't as cerebral as, say, Villeneuve's Enemy, which does not make sense at all if one is to try to view it in terms of surface-level literalism, but we come to find that there is a certain deliberateness to the nonlinear approach that we likely are not expecting as we watch, which definitely makes us question much of what we saw as straightforward narrative along the way.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention some of the impressive technical achievements of the film, including some impressive and indelible visual effects that go a long way toward setting up the film's dubiousness in terms of the intent of the aliens. A major standout is the fantastic cinematography from Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year), which stunningly evokes a sensation of otherworldliness through the use of light, shadows, silhouettes and fog.
Also going hand in hand with the sights are the brilliantly subdued and eerie sounds from composer Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything, Prisoners) for bringing a great sense of surreal awe to the alien encounters and other-worldly dimensions within the story, but also during some of the more emotional components within the story arc of its protagonist, Louise, and her journey through working out the importance of memory and time in determining who we all are. While the effects are global, we get a very personal story to relate to at the core of Arrival that resonates resoundingly.
While there will likely be some viewers who come out of the experience feeling dejected because Arrival doesn't deliver on the action moments of many big-budget alien encounter films we've come to expect, or because it does require some very deep thought and introspection in order to understand that some viewers don't want to expend time and energy to delve into, for those who appreciate and enjoy cerebral science fiction, Villeneuve has certainly delivered one of the better films of its ilk in recent years, ranking right up there with the likes of Inception and Ex Machina in terms of reaping greater rewards on repeat viewings.
It's a rare intellectual film that also compels through its emotional component as well, worth every second of the challenge of trying to piece together through a repeat viewing, or a further discussions with like-minded peers on how it so elegantly captures what it is to be human on this diverse and seemingly fragile planet full of people continuously challenged by our own hopes, dreams and fears of one another because we can't always communicate.
©2016 Vince Leo