Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite Canadian directors (one of my very favourite directors, period), has made another classic, this one very different from his previous films (all of which I also loved). Arrival is a quiet intense sci-fi film about the sudden arrival of aliens on earth. It’s impossible to write a review of Arrival without at least a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, stop reading now and go watch the film, knowing only that it will be the third Villeneuve film in seven years (Incendies and Sicario were the other two) to make my list of top ten films of the year. I will add that, unlike most of Villeneuve’s films, there is almost no violence in this one.
Okay, so now you’ve seen this wonderful film, which is based on a short story called Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and written by Eric Heisserer, and I can share some of the reasons I loved it.
Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, one of the top linguists in the U.S., who is called in to help the American government (military) communicate with the aliens who just landed a giant black ship in Montana. Eleven other ships have landed around the world and linguists are also trying to communicate with the aliens inside them, but only Banks will achieve major breakthroughs. Helping her with this is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an astrophysicist who works for the military. Both Banks and Donnelly are under the command of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the man who recruited them for this unique mission.
The aliens communicate only through ‘written symbols’ (produced by ink generated by their ‘hands’) that take a lot of effort to interpret, making this mission a long slow process. But linguists around the world are working together with Banks, and progress is made, be it ever so slowly. Until, that is, one of the linguists translates an alien word as ‘weapon’ and suddenly the communication between countries is cut off, while plans are made to attack the ships before the ships attack earth. This is an example of what happens when you put first contact with aliens into the hands of the military - the military is always in defense mode, viewing everything it doesn’t understand as a threat.
With all her efforts coming up short, will Banks find a way forward before all hell breaks loose? I’ll leave it there, but let’s just say that what happens next is a very far cry from Independence Day.
From beginning to end, Arrival belongs to Adams and she is terrific (I see an Oscar nomination coming) in a role that exemplifies precisely what I was asking for in my controversial review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In that review, I asked why strong female characters in action films need to show that they can be as violent as any man, instead of offering an alternative to violence. Unlike most of the men around her, who quickly panic and reach for their guns, Banks dismisses violence out of hand and, to the last, seeks alternatives. That seeking requires a tremendous amount of courage and determination, as well as intelligence, empathy and compassion, making Banks a far better role model than most ‘action’ heroes. This is the second film in a row in which Villeneuve has featured a strong and thoughtful female protagonist who is surrounded by men who like to shoot first. It’s also Villeneuve’s second film in row that challenges the military mindset. I like this guy!
All I’ve said so far, however, just touches the surface of Arrival. This thought-provoking film goes much deeper, with questions about life that touch on many other issues of our time. For example, it takes a unique look at the power of language and what it means to communicate effectively with others without automatically reacting in fear or with militaristic actions. Another example: if you could see every moment of the rest of your life, with all its joys and sorrows, would you be able to embrace it anyway and not change anything (if given the choice), regardless of the consequences? And did I mention that Arrival is primarily the story of a mother and her child?
Or is Arrival primarily about time? In a sense, it’s a time-travel film with scenes that, in lesser films, would have had me shaking my head incredulously at the contrived solutions to the paradoxes involved. But Arrival’s way of handling time is so unique that it’s almost impossible to challenge.
Arrival is a simple, elegant, moving, wise and poetic sci-fi film (though not in the Tarkovsky sense). There are elements of Malick here, with a definite focus on the right side of the brain, but the narrative is strong (even if profoundly complex). The film reminds me of sci-fi classics from my younger days, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. The cinematography and score, meanwhile, are excellent. Arrival gets an easy **** and will likely be found in my top five films of 2016.