By this point, how many alien movies can we possibly stomach? The space bugs come down, they shoot us, stuff gets destroyed, we shoot them back. We get it. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is as exhausted by these troupes as I am. This is an invasion film completely uninterested in being a standard action blockbuster. At its core, this is a character drama in which aliens just so happen to be around. Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflected through Black Mirror.
The story centers on a group of twelve mysterious (and rather almond looking) “shells” that land in different corners of the world. In an attempt to make first contact, the government brings in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist and grieving mother, to attempt a parlay with our off world friends. By her side to crunch numbers is snarky physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who becomes equally invested in learning the mysterious visual language the aliens use to communicate. Meanwhile, the governments of the world, channeled through Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) begin to grow impatient, hoping to strike first if the aliens prove to be hostile.
Very little of the tension in Arrival is directly centered around the aliens. Sure, they have massive ships, and they’re not exactly pleasant looking, but they have virtually nothing to do with the ticking clock. All of the anxiety created in this film is centered around human nature. How patient humanity be in the face of unfamiliarity? How fast can we learn? Can the pursuit of knowledge override the agony of grief? The high concept premise is completely in service of these characters’ journeys, almost to the point of becoming invisible after a while. Pacing wise, it mirrors last year’s wonderful Ex Machina, letting conversation and discovery take center stage.
Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) is becoming one of the new masters of exploring intellectual themes under the mask of pulpy genre cinema. He’s a filmmaker completely dedicated to atmosphere, and Arrival takes its time to let that atmosphere slink through the theater vents. With that said, there isn’t a wasted shot in sight. The film almost immediately jumps into gear, doing a fantastic job of bringing us on the journey with Louise and company. The build up to seeing the aliens is particularly fantastic. Villeneuve bends and winds his camera through every crevice of the spacecraft as we’re slowly brought into its hull. It’s a slow build, but every moment is captivating. The amazing cinematography by Bradford Young, who borrows the lens from Villeneuve regular Roger Deakins, certainly helps that along. This may be a grimy looking film full of gray and black colors, but it never seems bleak. There’s an air of mystery in virtually every frame, which keeps everything moving through a brisk two hours.
Backing up this aesthetic beauty is a wonderful cast who each give understated, textured performances. Amy Adams is in top form as the fiercely intelligent but emotionally scared Louise. She completely draws us into learning about and understanding these aliens. It’s deeply refreshing after seeing so many movie scientists constantly make silly mistakes so that set pieces can happen. With that said, there’s something broken inside of her, and whenever she’s not working, that becomes deeply apparent. Jeremy Renner plays very well off of her while providing doses of warm levity. He’s not given quite as much of an arc, but his presence is almost as comforting to us as it is to Adams. This isn’t the movie where two people from different sides of the fence bicker for half the story only to arbitrarily come to common ground. These are two good people who are drawn together to solve a problem, and Villeneuve is smart enough to know that is fascinating enough. Only Whitaker winds up being a little underserved. While his character isn’t exactly the trite angry army man, he’s not exactly given a lot more to do besides wind the ticking clock.
Even with all of these fantastic elements, there are moments where things do seem to lag for just a second. Occasionally, it seems as though Villeneuve is beating certain elements of the story into the ground. It seems heavy handed. However, as the film builds to its conclusion, all of those seemingly extraneous pieces start to snap into place. A massive and incredibly satisfying twist not only validates how much Villeneuve has toyed with the audience but demands them to return for a second viewing.
Arrival may be a deeply intellectual and dense film, but it never presumes itself to be smarter than it’s audience. It respects them enough to give them a story worth paying attention to, but it never descends into being gimmicky. It’s an utterly genuine and emotionally satisfying story. It may seem a little grim at first glance, and while it certainly goes into very dark territory, there’s a deep optimism at its core. It’s a film about uniting, learning, and standing for something beyond ourselves, and right now, that could not be more needed.