Jake Richardson | 10/11/2016
Denis Villeneueve’s Arrival is a smart and stirring sci-fi that provides an intriguing counterpoint to the years of action-driven science fiction we have been subjected to, and is all the better for it.
We’re introduce to Dr. Louise Banks played by Amy Adams as a woman coming to grips with the emptiness of her life. Having recently lost her daughter to a terrible illness, and separated from her husband. Banks only escape is her career as one of the foremost linguistics teachers in the nation. Her expertise in linguistics makes her a valuable resource and is the reason behind her selection to assist in the investigation of the 12 mysterious spacecraft’s which land at various locations around the world. And thus begins Banks’, and, indeed, the worlds’, journey to understand these extra-terrestrial visitors and their purpose. On the way, meeting Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, a physicist whose presence begs the question of what is the universal form of communication, math or language?
Denis Villeneueve begins the film with warm close-ups of Louise and her daughter that stand in stark contrast to the wide-shot chromatic look of the rest of the film. The sci-fi is stripped away in these early scenes, and we see the raw pain and hurt in Amy Adams’ performance. His early tracking shots of Adams’ as she finds her way through the turmoil of the Montana military camp, puts on her radiation suit and makes her way to the alien ship puts the viewer on edge. We don’t get a typical explanatory wide-shot this early on; we get the panic of Louise’s own experience. Indeed, Villeneueve’s use of close-up in these early stages reminds one of the claustrophobic feeling of his earlier work in Prisoners. We get the same sense here that Louise is trapped by the loss of her daughter – she is terrified in her radiation suit, but she has nothing but her work anymore in her life.
The production design is spectacular, and Villeneueve takes full advantage of the sleek, seemingly stone, no-energy emitting spaceship in Montana with a sweeping tracking shot that follows Banks’ helicopter arrival before circling around the spaceship and swooping back in on the military encampment. The inner chamber of the alien spacecraft is also beautiful; black and barren, with a solid glass white wall at one end. It is through this panel that the aliens appear. There are two of them (Renner’s Ian Donnelly calls them “Abbott and Costelloe”), and their written language appears as circular symbols on the white, glass wall.
Truly, Villeneueve, along with cinematographer Bradford Young, presents a striking visual picture, and not just in the alien spaceship. Simple shots of Renner and Adams in the back of a ute are breathtakingly beautiful, as are shots of disappearing spaceships. Even more so, a final conversation between Renner and Adams is shot entirely in close-up from behind them. We see only slivers of their faces as they glance at each other, but the intimacy of the moment is so much more powerful for the choice of camera position.
Moments are reminiscent of Villeneuve’s earlier work. We have mentioned the claustrophobia of Prisoners already, but the appearance of an alien (or “heptapod” as they are referred to in the film) in Louise’s room during a waking dream of hers will remind one of Villeneueve’s great identity-thriller Enemy. These waking dreams and Louise’s seemingly increasingly tenuous grip on reality form the basis of a surprising plot development. Beginning from the middle of the film in a casual, off-hand way, a certain theory takes hold of the films narrative and leads to moments of revelation by the end. It is beautiful, dramatic storytelling that doesn’t shy away from difficult to understand concepts. It is tense and cerebral, and will have you leaving the cinema in a sense of awe.
However, it is also predicated on surprise. The third act is so powerful because it is so unexpected, and so it won’t be talked about too much here in this review.
Narratively, the film is an interesting exploration of concepts and theories that haven’t been present in recent sci-fi blockbusters. But it is not the narrative that makes the film such a triumph, nor is it the direction. It is the performance from Amy Adams.
Adams is raw and visceral as a mother, smart and quick as a scientist and dashing and daring as a heroine in the third act. Her performance is so layered and so emotional, there is no effort in suspending disbelief. She dispenses scientific jargon in spades, but never gets swallowed up in it. She infuses Louise with a base drive. Despite the character’s occasionally reckless choices, they aren’t just characteristics of a swaggering hero with no regard for the rules. You can see her thinking them through, weighing the risks and benefits and choosing to follow her scientific curiosity despite the risks. Furthermore, her performance gives credence to her decision when she makes such a heart-wrenching choice at the end of the film. Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks is no Mary Sue, but she is without a doubt one of the smartest, strongest female heroines to grace our screens in a long time.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t also strong. Jeremy Renner gives it his all as Ian Donnelly, and it is great to see him back into a dramatic role after so much time spent running around in tights as an Avenger. His form makes one want to go back and watch his early work in Hurt Locker, because he does so much with his performance here; elevating a one-dimensional character in the script to someone you really care about in the film. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg are both also good, if somewhat one-note. But it is Amy Adam’s film, and one that should see her nominated for a plethora of awards at the end of the year.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a tense, immersive science fiction film. With a strong narrative, and an even stronger performance from it’s female lead, Arrival could very well be the best film of the year.