Director Denis Villeneuve earned ample accolades last year with Sicario, a methodically paced thriller with cynical overtones and a killer cast. His latest effort, Arrival, is also a methodically paced thriller with cynical overtones and a killer cast. While the similarities may not end there, Arrival couldn’t be much more diametrically opposed in both tone and content to the director’s prior film. The two obviously share Villeneuve’s capacity to attract a top-notch ensemble and allow them to embody their roles to the fullest, along with his pensive approach to character development and narrative progression. However, Arrival is a much more deliberate piece of filmmaking with a distinctly humanistic message, emphasizing the personal aspects of its story over the flashy set pieces that characterize so much of the alien invasion subgenre. Villeneuve has crafted a taut, thought-provoking examination of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses, hidden beneath the guise of a typical genre potboiler. The questions his film raises are well worth the audience’s time, even if those in the market for explosions and lasers will have to look elsewhere.
In many ways, Arrival functions as the dialectical antithesis to films like the Independence Day franchise or the whiz-bang spectacle of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboots. It’s a thinking man’s approach to the prospect of alien life making first contact with humanity. Villeneuve has obviously taken a lot of cues from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) while also drawing heavily from the recent spate of more cerebral sci-fi cinema such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Arrival isn’t as saccharine as Spielberg’s Close Encounters (1977) or as cheese-laden as the Jodie Foster vehicle Contact (1997), but it does share the sense of novelty that made those films successful. Ultimately, Villeneuve has found a new angle on a class of movies that was already feeling played out in the wake of Robert Wise’s seminal The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which is no mean feat.
The story deals with the ramifications of the eponymous arrival in which a dozen ovoid spacecraft suddenly appear and hover menacingly at disparate global locations. As world governments race to understand the alien visitors’ intentions, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) in an effort to establish direct communication with the ships’ inhabitants. Even as progress is made, intergovernmental conflict and basic human nature threaten to turn the event into a world war, allowing Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (working from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) to deal with complex issues ranging from the imprecision of language to the inherent impediments that preexisting biases introduce to communication.
Whitaker and Renner deliver solid supporting performances, fleshing out their relatively limited roles with a solid grounding in character motivation. It’s Adams, however, who drives the film’s emotional arc, imparting her portrayal of Banks with strength and compassion while also subtly suggesting a deeper vulnerability that contributes greatly to the establishment of pathos. Far from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, this female lead is decidedly human, plagued by self-doubt and obsessive tendencies that lend nuanced shading to the character. Adams’ ability to convey such an intricate emotional and psychological landscape represents a career highlight in the midst of an already impressive resume.
In the broader context of standard cineplex sci-fi, Arrival feels distinctly stripped down and minimalistic in terms of both its cast and its visual aesthetic. While the effects work may have been limited as a result of budgetary constraints, the finished product plays with an efficiency that enhances its otherworldly qualities — the alien “heptapods” constantly shrouded in ethereal mist suggesting something decidedly alien without breaking the bank. Beyond its exemplary cast, Arrival’s greatest strengths are its ornate structure, densely layered symbolism and carefully constructed narrative, allowing its standard genre trappings to serve a greater purpose.
When I screened Arrival, a handful of moviegoers remained as the credits rolled, discussing the significance of what they had just seen. This is the most resounding testament to the film’s efficacy, and it’s difficult to think of a stronger recommendation. While it’s far from the first example, Arrival may be the film that definitively marks the arrival of literate science fiction as a viable subgenere. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Now Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville.