A lot of films either try to impress you with being smart or clever, or they try to reel you in by appealing to emotional connections and attachments audiences develop with characters or concepts. Good films tend to do both, and the really great ones can devastate or elate you (sometimes both at the same time) while simultaneously confronting you with questions that actually make you stop a second and consider their implications. Maybe questions about relationships, about the human condition as it currently stands or has stood, about scientific progressions and what they could mean. Questions about the things we do and why we do them. Arrival is a great film because it manages to pull off what few films can: it invokes an equal amount of thought and emotion from it’s audience in an earnest way and with a certain magnitude.
Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks, who gets called upon by the U.S. government for assistance when twelve unidentified flying objects suddenly appear in random locations throughout the world. It is clear these are alien spacecrafts, and Banks spearheads efforts to start an understandable dialogue with these visitors, along with pragmatic scientist Ian Donnelly. Things escalate in interesting ways, invoking themes similar to films like Contact and Interstellar, but it’s originality ultimately sees the film make it’s own significant mark in the genre rather than hovering in the shadows of it’s celebrated predecessors.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer opts for protagonists who try to solve a problem through communication and logical acumen rather than heading in with overly defensive and aggressive attitudes, which brings a sort of reassuring assessment of ourselves to the story, in terms of that being what we would, hopefully, actually do in such a situation. To say the film has some unique and surprising plot developments in it’s story isn’t spoiling anything, but to say much else would be to rob you of the experience, so I won’t.
The film comes by way of current rockstar director Denis Villeneuve, who has been solidifying his reputation as one of cinema’s most exciting filmmakers in recent years. He made one of the best films of 2015 in the institutionally introspective crime-drama Sicario, and has Blade Runner 2049 coming up next. Amy Adams is the focal point in the movie as linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks, and Jeremy Renner takes on the supporting role of theoretical scientist Ian Donnelly.
The film lives and breaths through Adams’ performance, and she really is stunning in what is one of, if not the, best performance of her career. Jeremy Renner delivers yet another typically impressive presence, never trying to overstep his role but accentuating Adams perfectly. Also, the quality brought to smaller roles like those of Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber and Michael Stuhlbarg’s Agent Halpern should also be praised for rounding out an outstanding ensemble act.
Led by rising star in the industry Bradford Young, whose work you might have seen in 2014’s A Most Violent Year, the cinematography is a sight to behold. Whether it’s the impending atmospheric dread of slow-moving cloud clusters over the stillness of vast landscapes occupied by a 15,000 foot hovering aircraft, or blurry tree branches swaying in the wind during memories of lost loved ones, his work here is special. It is easy to see why he was Villeneuve’s first choice after Roger Deakins was unable to jump on board due to scheduling conflicts. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is also an integral component to the success of this film, adding weight, emotion, and depth throughout scenes, and even dazzlingly utilizing absolute silence in key moments to help convey the particular auras that Villeneuve is trying to communicate.
Both technically and in it’s soul Arrival comes together masterfully, and it starts with Heisserer’s script. As mentioned before, the film succeeds on so many levels because it balances bright storytelling with it’s appeal to our collective cores as human beings. Much will be said about the cerebral qualities of the film, about how it’s a movie for the thinking man and how its refreshingly mature for a Hollywood studio film with actual movie stars. All of this is true, and is certainly impressive and appreciated, yet what makes it truly exceptional is the emotional grip the film keeps you in throughout it’s running time. You care about these characters because they have real decisions to make and real questions to answer that go beyond serving as connective tissue to tie up plot points. And I’m not just talking about the human characters, either.
Are tragedy and suffering to be avoided at all costs, or are they inseparably tied to the moments of beauty and happiness we experience? Is it worth avoiding one if it robs us of the other? Is it accurate to judge the quality of a life by the sum of its parts? Will it ever be possible to come together as a species and put our collective efforts together for the greater good, or is it just in our nature to do otherwise? These are only a few of the perhaps heady themes Arrival introduces, and like most good works of art, you are mostly left to decide for yourself. Not that these are particularly new ideas or questions, but when they can be addressed in such a tasteful and impactful manner, well, it’s a treat. This is a beautiful film in every sense of the word. It is a tremendous testament to what movies can be when they hit on all cylinders and transcend entertainment to become cornerstones of thought, ideas and conversation. It’s one of the best films of the year. I’m still wrestling over whether it’s Arrival or The Lobster for my number one spot thus far, but who cares. The bottom line: go watch Arrival. You will be wowed. You will be excited. You might be a little sad at times, but you will also feel ultimately optimistic in our ability to improve ourselves, to preserve and learn. And, especially in times like these, it feels like these sentiments are needed.