MOVIE REVIEW: "Arrival's" Political Message is Stunningly Prescient

Over the course of the year 2016, I’ve seen a good fair few movies, and ended up liking most of them (Luke Scott’s Morgan excluded). I’ve delighted in the blithe comedy of manners of Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, embarrassed everyone around me in the movie theater by laughing-cum-crying too loudly at Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (directed by Jake Szymanski), cheered on the butt-kicking friendship of the ladies of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (dir. Paul Feig), and enjoyed Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder) far more than I anticipated (but only the ultimate edition). But in this review, I’m going to be talking about a film that completely blew me away, and established itself as my favorite movie of 2016 thus far: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which I recently caught at the Vienna Film Festival. 

Arrival stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as linguist Louise Banks and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly, respectively, who are tasked with working with the United States Army in the wake of the arrival of a mysterious alien spacecraft, one of twelve that have landed in countries across the globe. Using Louise’s knowledge of language and Ian’s training in science, they must figure out how to communicate with the mysterious aliens in order to learn their purpose and whether they constitute a threat to humanity. Yet while a lesser film would have established this storyline in order to foment some kind of action-packed climax of humans versus aliens, Arrival breathtakingly chooses to focus on the inherent meaning of communication and connection, not only between species, but within the same species, as the other countries dealing with their respective spacecrafts grow increasingly agitated, frightened, and hostile towards the aliens; in essence, Arrival champions the importance of being able to work with and understand one another without resorting to violence, even in the face of the oft-terrifying unknown—particularly important in today’s increasingly fractured global political climate.

Arrival opens with what seems to be a simple story about Louise losing her daughter to cancer, then cuts to the day “they arrived” and plays out the scenario involving the aliens. While the idea of a woman mourning her child becoming involved in a space-related drama at first seems to hew too quickly to the story of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). But the initial hesitation I had based on the first few minutes of the film quickly was replaced with a sense of wonder mingled with horror and suspense, and as the plot unfolds delicately and magnificently, the threads of Louise’s loss and the purpose of the aliens are woven together in an ingenious way that far exceeds the sum of its parts. While Gravity’s protagonist’s tragic loss seems less integral to the narrative, Louise’s serves as an undercurrent to everything we see her do because it is revealed early, and when the inevitable twist explanation is revealed, which I refuse to spoil here, it makes the choices Louise makes even more meaningful.

In a smart move, the film combines both the technical and narrative aspects of filmmaking in order to fully immerse the viewer in Louise’s position as she gradually grows to understand not only the aliens, but herself and her own life as well. When Louise arrives at the makeshift Army base and establishes her first interaction with the mysterious aliens, the keen and layered use of sound serves to place the audience directly and effectively in Louise’s shoes: running throughout is a haunting, almost agonizing score (composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson), mingled with the ambient noises of her Hazmat suit and the busy work of the others around her, topped off with her own unsteady breathing. Essentially, this emphasis on contrasting and disorienting sounds that make it difficult for the audience to take everything in gives the audience a taste of the kind of decryption and inference Louise will have to perform as a linguist, helping us to understand the work she must do even if we don’t understand the specific technical nature of her work. As far as Oscar predictions go, I would be surprised if Arrival doesn’t at least get nominated for sound mixing and editing, and maybe even for best score—and a win in any of these areas would rightly be deserved. The visuals are also stunning—cinematographer Bradford Young provides an engaging play of light and dark with a cool palette, especially in the sequences where Louise engages with the aliens in their ship. Likewise, Denis Villeneuve creates a moment of jaw-dropping awe using one long take when the audience is first introduced to the ship, sitting in the middle of a Montana field, as we follow a helicopter’s point of view and gently rotate to give us an impression of the wide, sweeping vista and the scale of the operation.

The performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both strong and ground the high-concept science fiction of the film into something more relatable. Renner has the simpler role, which falls comfortably into the kind of work he has done in many of his films: the competent, confident individual whose combination of dry, flinty wit and wide-eyed earnestness makes him immediately someone to root for (see: Hawkeye in the Avengers, Agent William Brandt in the Mission: Impossible series). Adams has the harder role, and she plays it with aplomb. In short, she has to convey the lingering melancholy of losing her daughter while at the same time show the combination of absolute panic and giddy excitement of learning to understand and communicate with the aliens, as well as react appropriately to the disturbing slew of information that comes her way as a result of her work. While the scale of her task in Arrival is necessarily global (and indeed, interplanetary), Villeneuve consistently brings the attention back to her interiority, using many shots from her point of view, close-ups of her expressive face, and flashes of her shaking hands to remind us that Arrival is also a wonderfully human story.

As far as negative aspects go, they are few and far between. Most significant and disappointing is the underutilization of Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, who enlists Louise’s help. He is billed third in the credits, but unfortunately does not ultimately do much other than butt heads with Louise and her methods and act concerned when the other countries choose to escalate tensions with their aliens, and it’s really a shame. Additionally, because I have no knowledge of linguistics, it seems like the script glosses over the actual process Louise uses to learn the alien’s language in order to further her interactions with said aliens, which admittedly would likely bore the audience and be overly technical. But these are small complaints with regards to the whole of Arrival. I know I found a movie powerful when I find myself babbling incoherently about how it “blew my mind” to the person next to me, and Arrival did that in spades—more than similarly “twisty” movies like Inception or The Prestige. In short: see it, see it, see it.

Arrival beams down to theaters in the United States on November 11, 2016.