Arrival (2016) Review
Arrival is a special film. For one, it fills 2016's quota for standout science-fiction feature (of late, these have become increasingly prevalent). For another, it never acts as if its audience is stuck at the back of the line, trying to catch up. It's a wonderfully acted, purposefully put together drama that will at times capture you in a trance simply by how beautiful it is.
Denis Villeneuve is on an impressive upward spiral. He follows Prisoners and Sicario with Arrival, and with each new film he puts out his resume gets more and more memorable. There's a good chance that Arrival will be considered a sci-fi classic years down the line, and it is certainly one of the best genre films to come out in recent memory. It's a thoughtful, smart, and unique tale that so rarely missteps that those moments are remarkably easy to forgive.
Amy Adams puts in another rousing performance as Louise, a linguist who performed one job for the government a couple years back, meaning that of course they'll track her down to get her expert opinion on the arrival of twelve alien pods right across the globe. It's a flimsy but castaway moment, one that thrusts Louise into the events of the film, and from there we spend a lot of time peering over her shoulder as she touches down at base camp. Villeneuve wants us to feel just as alien to the experience as Louise does. He wants us to learn at the same rate that she does.
While Louise is our everyman in this tale, for a while the character herself feels secondary to the things that are happening. She's introduced in a stunning opening sequence and we're given enough pieces of information to go on by the time she's enlisted into the film's plot, but from there on we spend relatively few times with the character being herself. As the film wears on, however, it's clear that Villeneuve has a plan, and that plan plays out remarkably well, thanks in no small part to its precise pacing. It alternates to a different time period at various stages, but it never gets lost in them. Instead, they exist more as clues, and when the bow is tied by the credits, everything clicks.
But as mesmerizing as the film's core mystery is, it's the unraveling of that mystery that is overwhelmingly delivered. Louise's first trip into the pod is a masterclass in building tension. Backed by the stunning soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson (which captures its audience immediately at the film's beginning), Louise meets the aliens in a drawn out sequence of pulsating tension, to such an extreme that as a viewer you want the reveal to hurry up, if only because the wait becomes excruciating.
There's something frightening about the aliens, but only because they are so different. Arrival is a tale about language, about breaking barriers that are so rarely broken. There are parallels all throughout the film, from Louise raising her daughter, to the united nations attempting to decode the mystery, and to Louise and Ian's relationship. Jeremy Renner plays the scientist to juxtapose Louise's own area of expertise, and while this is an understandable and central relationship, one that grows as the film draws on, there's more time spent being told that Ian is important rather than being shown it. Instead, he seems simply there to be a passenger and a soundboard for Louise, who really is the one steering the ship.
The attempt to communicate with the aliens is so captivating, that it's an impressive feat when it all builds to a crescendo that we can regard as small scale in light of today's major motion pictures. The mysteries begin to be answered in a stunning sequence in which Louise shares the environment with the aliens, and everything from the design of the characters, to the atmosphere that's created, and to the photography, comes to a head. Villeneuve knows how to slow everything right down in a way that doesn't bring things to a jarring halt. He does not experiment outside of his narrative, and in many ways that is how it should be.
Arrival begs to be seen again. It accompanies the likes of Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian as the recent kings of science-fiction, and it arguably sits atop all of them. Its director has quickly become one to watch in the film industry, and Arrival is proof that film is not in any dire trouble, and there's still plenty to be said in the field. Any single film just needs the right voice for the job.