Canadian film director and writer Denis Villeneuve has been on a roll lately. In 2013 he directed “Prisoners,” an unrelentingly tense thriller set in the suburbs, and in 2015 he delivered “Sicario,” a bleak mediation on narco-violence on the Mexican border. Now, he presents “Arrival” (2016), which continues to demonstrate his wide range and talent.
Based on the award-winning novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, published in 1998, “Arrival’s” central themes are language and its relation to human memory and world-view.
This is an increasingly rare breed of sci-fi movie: one that is slow and doesn’t concern itself very much with explosions and action. Instead, we are treated to impressive imagery of gigantic floating and mysterious ships, bucolic hand-held-style flash-backs reminiscent of the style of Terrence Malick, and discussions on language. “Genre” stories are often mistreated as inferior to “serious” (read that as “realist”) efforts because of their fantastical trappings, but at the core of all great “genre” stories lie the same problems of human nature as in other, mainstream works. The fantastical just allows for more forms of expression.
“Arrival” starts as linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) sees 12 extraterrestrial spacecraft appear across different parts of Earth on television. She is asked by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Withaker) to join a team tasked with finding out the intentions of the aliens. She is accompanied by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a whole detachment of the army. What follows is a race against time, as several nations of Earth struggle to learn the alien language in order to communicate with the extraterrestrials and avoid war, as other countries are afraid they might invade and are preparing a preemptive attack on the ships.
This expansive narrative is filtered through the personal story of Banks and her daughter, which is inextricably linked to the rest of the events. The film asks complicated questions about grief, communication and our perception of time. While it is not a challenging movie structure-wise, it offers some interesting twists regarding its mysterious first scenes.
The movie’s aliens suffer from a lack of stronger design, but then again, they are not what the movie cares about. Adams and Renner offer strong and believable performances, with constant extreme close-ups accentuating them.
Although it feels a little rushed in the ending scenes (it could have benefitted from 20 more minutes), “Arrival” is a good entry in Villeneuve’s filmography: a strong, thoughtful and beautifully photographed film.