Writer and director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies, Sicario) presents another visual puzzle with his Arrival. This alien science fiction drama is slow, deliberate and ponderous and less gruesome to watch than those other movies. Villeneuve still earns strong performances from his cast and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Amy Adams (Her, Man of Steel) in leading roles are fine. Neither as inscrutable as a Shyamalan or Nolan picture nor as clear, elegant and rewarding as a Hitchcock movie, Villeneuve blends his elements into a cold, gray think piece.
Arrival plants clues to its plot surprises, but it’s still too intellectual for its own good. I figured out what was happening at a certain point in the action—you probably will, too—and, unlike The Sixth Sense and other twist movies, Arrival refreshingly exists to cultivate and encourage thought, not merely to shock, surprise and titillate. So, this is immensely absorbing. Though it is based solely on earth, Arrival belongs to that resurgent genre of Hollywood sci-fi movies such as The Martian, Interstellar and Gravity which emanates from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Marooned, even Apollo 13: space or science fiction that makes you think. But, to varying degrees, these movies are lacking in an ability to make you feel.
Arrival comes closer than most. Masterfully scaling back to focus on the individual—a woman named Louise (Adams)—while retaining the expectant sense of awe at a terrestrial visit by aliens, Villeneuve imbues a bleak, remote sense of grayness into the film. Using Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score (strikingly similar to Michael Nyman’s music for Gattaca), Amy Adams’ face and the placidity of a lakehouse, Villeneuve marks the motion picture with singular touches of significance to allow the audience to trade on what one notices. A beautiful tree signals that life stands alone against the world. A pair of wine glasses indicates couplehood. A body pillow suggests loneliness.
The desire to be connected to others is central to Arrival‘s intelligent theme. It comes clearly from the Adams character, Louise, an academic linguist who writes and teaches that language is both art and the basis for civilization. Louise enters her classroom trying to connect, looking out at students, probing for inquiring eyes, reaching out to family, from her daughter to her mother, and, of course, to the aliens that she is contracted by the American state to decipher, analyze and interpret. Connection, communion, are key to Arrival.
So are disconnection and departure. Through its gray tones, flat lines and televised scenes of talk radio rants, widespread traffic jams, panic and looting across the world as 12 alien spaceships hover over the earth, Arrival deposits in Louise a feeling of loss, alienation and despair; the earth in its meltdown is leaving her or she is leaving this earth or something extra-terrestrial is going on, even as Louise narrates and hints that life is a grand and meaningful loop to close—in Apple’s words, is it one infinite loop?—blotchy circles are all she has to work on.
With mounting pressure on Louise’s boss (Forest Whitaker) to get fast answers so earthlings can size up the visitors’ aims, Louise is both driven by her desire to connect and taunted by her visions of her daughter. In the meantime, she connects with Renner’s scientist, a sensitive and intelligent colleague who sees the profound effect of the mission and accounts in his own way for its universal implications. Will the aliens attack? Do they hold certain concepts and, if so, how? Can the government be trusted? Will Communist China wage a first strike upon the spaceship over Shanghai? What to make of the naysayers, from those pre-judging the aliens to those claiming that their ships are bad for the environment?
How do we know what we know?
This last question is implicitly answered with a bit of a parlor trick in Arrival, which puts 12 ships over 12 parts of earth, teasing with whatever you know of the number twelve—months, apostles, monkeys—and leading to a final question: Are we alone? The answer will almost certainly make you think, at least if you draw a conclusion about whether an answer is possible, and Arrival supplies plenty of material with which to make one, including a far-fetched notion about what a dictator would and would not do. But in the heroine, thinker and pioneer, who may choose to defy the government, the earth and the whole world to save and enrich herself while leaving the world alone—if arguably putting the world at risk of destruction—one finds inner peace. Arrival‘s screenplay by Eric Heisserer based upon a tale by Ted Chiang leaves few breaks in the loop and little room for interpretation that the meaning of life is to live, let live and fill it in with what’s entirely up to you.
Arrival is as much about why you want to escape as the wonder of anticipating an arrival and it is skillfully made. It transports, deposits and prompts thought more than it moves the audience with emotion. In a turbulent world being torn apart, getting there is good enough.