Film Review: “Arrival”

For many people, it is impossible to sit patiently and wait for the release of the next Marvel or Star Wars film.  For me, however, Arrival is *that* movie I’ve been patiently waiting for.  Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, if you liked Interstellar, then this is the movie for you.  If you wish that Independence Day and Independence Day: Resurgence (primarily the latter) had more logic and finesse behind its production and more skill in its writing and acting, Arrival is what you need to see. 

Aliens.  They appear out of nowhere in twelve random locations throughout the world.  The government seeks out the help of linguistic expert Louise Banks (Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner).  The two arrive at the alien landing site in Montana, and pick up where the previous linguist left off: trying to make intelligible contact with the aliens, known as heptapods (seven legs).  Louise decides that writing is the best way to understand their language and make contact with them.  Eventually, the government decides that she has learned their language well enough to ask them the most important question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

The whole film is everything the sci-fi, alien genre needed it to be, and more, especially after Independence Day: Resurgence failed to live up to its hype in spectacular fashion.  (As much as I would love to bash that movie endlessly, I won’t.)  The acting in Arrival is absolutely Oscar-worthy.  Amy Adams delivers the performance of her life, and should absolutely be considered a front-runner in the Best Actress category.  I am loathe to give away anything by singling out pieces of her performance, but suffice it to say, she gives a solid showing until the end of the film; her true skill shows itself within the last 30 minutes, and it is breathtaking.  Renner, previously nominated for Best Supporting Actor in The Town and Best Actor in The Hurt Locker, should get his third nomination for this film, though it is unclear in which category.  All the praise they receive for their acting is more than deserved, but the film has three more important aspects to it that elevate Arrival to new heights.

Arrival gets its first boost from the writing.  Eric Heisserer writes what could possibly be the best screenplay of the year.  His father, a Classics professor, was fluent in a few languages, so in many ways, this script was perfect for him to write.  Every little nuance written into the script is important in the long run.  He even came to visually incorporate the alien language into the screenplay itself when words failed to accurately describe it.  With help from Ted Chiang, the author of “The Story of Your Life,” which Arrival is based on, Heisserer was able to master the alien language and, through that, the script.  The whole secret to the alien language is its complexity, lack of punctuation, and the idea that sentences, paragraphs, and longer can be crafted in only a few seconds.  The writing skill Heiserrer displays in constructing such a script makes me wonder if he is one of the heptapods.

The two most important aspects of the film, however, belong to composer Johan Johansson and director Denis Villeneuve.  The bromance these two men have when it comes to collaboration is now approaching the level of Hans Zimmer/Christopher Nolan.  The last two movies Johansson and Villeneuve worked on together (Sicario, Prisoners) have produced some of the most tense, unnerving scores you’ll ever hear.  Arrival continues on that level, particularly that of Sicario, using intense bass sounds at the first encounter with the alien ship and the aliens themselves.  The music is beautiful in its ability to make the audience feel an intense sense of impending doom.  Johansson has a two year streak of Oscar nominations for Best Original Score (The Theory of Everything [2014] and Sicario [2015]).  Look for that streak to continue this year.

Villeneuve, on the other hand, has yet to get his first Oscar nod.  Completely and totally snubbed for his work on Sicario, I expect this film will finally attract the gaze of the Academy.  Villeneuve turns Arrival into his seminal work.  Aside from the careful job he does in making humanity’s reaction balanced at the beginning, he is even more delicate in the later scenes when he escalates the old adage “to err is human.”  I would also be remiss if I did not mention the most important piece of the film: its homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Everyone who has seen the film remembers the monolith and the shot of the sun coming over the top.  In Arrival, we get a similar view of the deep black ships and the sun directly above it.  More importantly, though, is what happens after that shot: Louise and Ian enter the ship to make contact with the aliens for the first time.  Here, Villeneuve gives us what Stanley Kubrick did not in 2001: a look inside the monolith and who sent it.

(ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD; READ AT YOUR OWN RISK)  But fortunately, Villeneuve does not end his look back at 2001 there.  He tackles one of the weirdest, most complex scenes in film history: Dave travelling through a wormhole and what he sees on the other side.  Louise, at this point, has become close friends with the aliens.  So close, that they bring her into their atmosphere for a private conversation.  It is at this point that she not only masters her grasp of their written language, but also begins to experience time as they do: physically, able to live in events of the past and future as she pleases.  In taking on such a heavy topic and unpacking not just his movie, but Kubrick’s as well, he is more than deserving of his first Oscar. (END OF SPOILERS.)

While the direction of the film is the best part, the message of the film is what matters most.  In the Bible, the construction of the Tower of Babel led to the creation of many languages.  One way or another, the language barrier between societies and nations is what causes us to misunderstand each other, resulting in distance rather than closeness.  In Arrival, Louise takes on the story of Babel and the history of language division in an attempt to prevent intergalactic turmoil.  She makes it clear that understanding is the only path to peace, and even though to err is human, it is more human to fix our mistakes rather than to accept them.  For this reason, I urge you to see this film.

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