MUTED, CONTEMPLATIVE AND ULTIMATELY STELLAR, ARRIVAL PRESENTS A DIFFERENT KIND OF SCI-FI
Those who have excelled at their craft have a tendency to make extraordinary feats seem effortless to the casual observer. This is the case for Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”, a film that opts for a subdued minimalistic approach reminiscent of his other film Sicario (which I ranked among the ten best films of last year). This approach proves successful as Arrival is a masterful look at how to meld multiple cinematic elements together to create a tense, engaging and at times poignant film.
Arrival stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor tasked with finding a way to communicate with the alien entities that have landed twelve monolith like space crafts in twelve major countries across the globe. Paired with astrophysicist Ian Donnelley (an underused Jeremy Renner) their job is to find out the purpose behind the aliens’ sudden appearance on earth, all while facing mounting pressure from the government and the growing paranoia spread by the media to the public.
To go any further into the plot would be a disservice to what Villeneuve has made (it is best to go in knowing as little as possible) but what follows in the film’s 116 minute run time is not an intergalactic war between species as one might come to expect from the genre. There are no “today we celebrate our Independence Day” speeches, no mass battle filled with CGI lasers or doomsday device that shoots a giant beam of light into the sky that have become so commonplace among films today, instead what Villeneuve presents is a compelling concept that asks semi philosophical questions regarding the nature of love, fate, decision making and how we communicate.
These themes, like much of the film, are layered subtly striking a fine balance between entertainment and deeper more profound meaning never being pretentious or heavy-handed in its overall message. This is aided by perhaps the best musical score of the year (so far) composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson (with assistance from Max Richter) and the stellar cinematography by Bradford Young working in tandem together to create the final result without dominating the other to create Villeneuve’s vision.
Understanding that it is neither a linguistics nor an astrophysics class, Arrival does not get bogged down in explaining the science behind what is happening or engaging in complex jargon like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar did. While this may irk some people interested in these finer elements, this decision by Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer proves beneficial as it allows the film to be more focused on the larger questions that it wants the audience to ponder and the performances of the actors.
Amy Adams is the glue that holds Arrival together. What Adams does is not particular exciting on the surface, much of her time is spent reacting to the astonishing things happening around her and she is not given the big “Oscar reel” scene that sticks out above all the rest but what she does do is convey the emotion of the film behind a muted, sophisticated performance. To do this requires immense talent as the emotional payoff that the film culminates to rests squarely on her shoulders. Though some (including myself) may have issues with the Deus Ex Machina twist from which the film draws its conclusion, the return on emotional investment is still high thanks in large part to Adams’ Oscar nomination worthy performance.
What Villeneuve has done with Arrival is produce a science fiction film that excels in crafting tension drawing immediate comparisons to Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey – something Villeneuve himself is aware of as evidenced by small nods to his predecessors placed throughout the film. It would be easy to succumb to standard mindless entertainment when making a film in the science fiction genre where anything is within the realm of possibility or to get too caught up in trying to blow the audience away with its profound insights on human nature but Arrival is neither of these things. It instead finds beauty in restraint, demonstrating masterful control of many cinematic elements like a maestro conducting all the moving parts of an ensemble. Controlling, Captivating, Effortless.