Movie magic reaches its outermost limits when you’re sitting in on a new Sci-Fi film that carries an aura of mystery. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival hits all the traditional notes, he keeps it gripping, emotional and acutely down to earth.
There’s no shaky cam, noisy explosions or monstrous aliens on the prowl in this story, instead, we have a modest, visually claustrophobic piece about an expert linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her extraordinary efforts to communicate with the inhabitants of an alien spacecraft. 12 black, oval-shaped ships touchdown in different locations around the world, causing global unease, so much in fact that China and Russia grow antagonistic, threatening to attack the newcomers. The United States team, spearheaded by Banks, mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the stern Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), scramble to find answers with diplomatic, visual communication. These scenes are moody with a satiable mise en scène that contrasts pale, cloudy whites with deep, mystic blacks, lending to the aforementioned claustrophobic feel of the film.
Villeneuve expertly meshes the mystery of the alien situation with Louise’s heart-breaking backstory, in which she loses her young daughter to an incurable disease. Adams owns the screen with an effortless display of pain — speaking in monologues about the finiteness of life and its impossible questions. As she struggles to find out why these strange creatures have arrived — and if they’re a threat — we watch the characters reach a mental peak, operating out of exhaustion and disbelief, hoping that they are here to help.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s doomy music is back and dancing with Villeneuve’s visuals in cutting throat sync.
The aliens emit strange, booming noises and hold a dark, otherworldly appearance. They discharge a murky smoke and form symbols that Banks manages to decipher. As they make real progress, superpowers around the world ready their weapons, afraid of the unknown. The third act teeters on the fantastical, philosophizing the linearity of time, the preciousness of life — even if it’s for a short amount of time, with our fate already known. Villeneuve uses this shadowy, inhuman event as a critical looking glass at human communication, how the possibilities of a peaceful, world-wide union is achievable if we yearn to accept that there’s a chance it all means something.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s doomy music is back and dancing with Villeneuve’s visuals in cutting throat sync. Much like Sicario (2015), Arrival wouldn’t be the same experience without the constant pounding of Jóhannsson’s score amping up the tension as the human characters brace for an introduction with alien life.
Ultimately, Arrival is an accomplished piece of Science Fiction. It has an identity of its own, akin to Interstellar in a lot of ways, both films explore things we simply can’t fathom, but manage to meet head on with the power of the human spirit.