This is a thoughtful, hugely engaging movie about the power, the desperate need for communication…as the -only- weapon that can ensure our past is linked to a clear vision of our future.
This is Amy Adams (“American Hustle”) at her most compelling…it’s almost a one person show.
The story centres around the arrival of a dozen huge alien spacecraft that hang like dark pendants, scattered randomly across the throat of the world. No one knows why they’re there…what kind of threat, or opportunity, they represent. And unlike the city-destroying invaders of almost every other sci-fi movie about alien arrivals (“Independence Day”!), these arrivants disturb nothing around them….but our apprehensions and fears.
Amy Adams’ character -Dr. Louise Banks, a highly respected communicator and linguist, who seems to be burdened with memories of a tragic loss – is recruited, along with a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help an Army team (along with similar teams around the world) figure things out.
And as Luise and Ian bury their petty differences (which is more important, science or communication?) to invent – clever- ways toward their Rosetta Stone of comprehension (the aliens communicate in weird squid ink sprays that look like Rorschach test ellipses), the forces of fear and the need to take preemptive military action rise. Forest Whitaker, as the Army captain in charge of things, is himself a kind of interpreter: translating Luise’s and Ian’s need for patience, cooperation and deliberation to an Army command that, like the armies in Russia and China, view their protective mission solely through the lenses of war.
It’s jaw jaw v war war.
The movie, at times a bit slow, but always nervously thrilling (after all, we the audience also know nothing of the intention and potential malevolence of these octopus-like aliens, so we’re on edge all the time) builds toward a brilliant, Shyamalan-esque denouement (the old M.Night, when he was making clever movies) that’s as satisfying as it is mind expanding.
Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve has a growing list of tremendous movies (intelligent, exciting, character-driven): in 2013, he gave us “Prisoners” and last year, “Sicario”. In “Arrival”, the overriding tone he manages to communicate, largely through Amy’s ever shifting expressions, is one of wonder. He also has the ability to zero in on little, very human moments (Louise’s trembling hand) to dial up the drama…and the verisimilitude. There’s an aura of moodiness that dominates the movie (the first stunning shot of the spacecraft sees it hovering over a roiling cloud formation that just takes your breath away), created by Canadian production designer Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”) and cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”) who, as cinematographers go, is a bit of an anomaly: he’s Black. And Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“The Theory of Everything”) completes the feeling of otherworldliness with a dense, atonal score.
I can’t say there can be any effective, escapist, antidote at present to the other alien who’s just arrived at the White House. But this, in its breadth of vision (an understanding of how learning to communicate with “the other” reconfigures the mind in a way that enables dialogue and understanding) does remind you that, as a species, our odyssey is far more grand than the pettiness and xenophobia of the new American narrative.
ARRIVAL. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker. Cinematographer: Bradford Young. Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”)