By Anthony Miglieri
Slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonderment is not the desired reaction of every work of art, and thank goodness for that. If every film director had such aspirations, the cinema would likely be a much less inviting place. Only a handful of filmmaking artists can hope to be able to elicit such euphoria, and director Denis Villeneuve is one of them. He has wowed critics throughout his young career with films like Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), and Sicario (2015). His latest, Arrival, adds another bead to this string of sleek, thoughtful works.
In Arrival, extraterrestrials appear at several locations across the globe in 1500-foot-tall crafts resembling rigid, stone beans. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is recruited by the U.S. government to study the craft that has landed in Montana and to try to decipher their new visitors’ language. With the support of scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, and under the watchful eye of Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber, Banks attempts to discover the aliens’ reason for contacting Earth.
On the surface, Arrival shares a kinship with other extraterrestrial contact films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Contact (1997). In my opinion, Spielberg’s Close Encounters is just about the purest distillation of the wonderment we humans have in regards to life beyond our own, and its raw brand of cinematic magic has seldom found equal, in the science fiction genre or elsewhere. Spielberg’s 70’s classic may not be perfect in its structure and polish, but its roughly hewn nature supports the ambiguity of the story, helping it be the gold standard in alien contact films, at least in my eyes.
Like these older films, Villeneuve’s latest depicts man’s first communications with aliens as being more pensive than hostile. In pursuit of this vision, almost the entire team behind Arrival does fantastic work. Villeneuve once again fully utilizes his deft, steady hand behind the camera and teams with cinematographer Bradford Young to forge the film’s bleak, minimalistic, and breathtaking visual scheme. In front of the camera, Amy Adams delivers a quiet and perfectly emotive performance, a performance whose success is essential to the conveyance of the film’s considerable ambitions (more on those later). In addition, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker provide reliably solid acting and contribute to the film’s atmosphere. However, like Close Encounters, Arrival has its issues. Unlike the with the 1977 film though, these deficiencies do keep it from attaining the complete greatness that its best moments touch.
Yes, the heights of Arrival are incredible, but before those peaks arrive, there are some uninspired conventions that the movie falls prey to. The beginning of the film, for instance, exhibits some fairly standard “aliens have come” and “the government recruits specialists” mechanics. The dutifully cranking gears of the plot are also heavily felt during certain sequences, such as during an extended voice-over exposition montage and during an unexpected scene in which some anonymous characters make a logically questionable decision. In addition, Michael Stuhlbarg, a very talented character actor, is sequestered to filling one of these roles, of which there are many: obligatory government men who are constantly and automatically suspicious and doubtful of the main character’s instincts. However, this is the rare film that gets better as it goes along: in the last third or so of the movie, a discovery is made that changes the context of everything that has come before, and commences the drilling into Arrival’s dizzying depths. I refuse to spoil anything about this part of the film, but suffice to say: it gets weird, it gets confusing, and it gets profound.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Arrival is how it concerns itself more with self-discovery within man himself more than it ponders the implications of alien life. In this light, Villeneuve’s film has parallels to Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative masterwork Solaris (1972), a film that also examines our perception of life, time, and space. Without seeming in the slightest like a preachy mission statement, Arrival ends up being an incredibly humanistic and optimistic thinkpiece on the state of humanity as well as on the human condition. Such primal emotions as sadness, regret, longing, and hope are simultaneously laid under a microscope, blown up, and flipped inside-out before Arrival is through, and the touching vibrancy with which this deconstruction is presented did not leave my eyes dry in the theater, I’ll tell you that much.
Many will find Arrival to be a puzzle, and those without the patience or tolerance for slow, thoughtful filmgoing experiences will be displeased if they see it. Indeed, the pew-pew razzle-dazzle of Independence Day (1996) is nowhere to be found here. Instead, the approach Arrival takes is incredibly refreshing, especially when viewed against the colorful mayhem that Marvel has been perpetually packaging for nearly a decade. For such a widely released film, Arrival becomes shockingly quiet and abstract at points, and Villeneuve and his team pull it off with conviction and virtuosity. For this feat, the artists behind this work deserve the attention and applause of any halfway serious filmgoer.
“S-U-C-K-E-D. Sucked!” So uttered the elderly woman behind me when the ending credits of Arrival materialized. “I thought it was pretty great,” a gentleman companion offered. When a work of art inspires such extreme reactions in both directions, it has struck upon something vital in its audience. In a sense, what more can art hope to do? Arrival may not be perfect, but the film’s finest moments do just that: penetrate to the bone.