By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Arrival is an intricate masterpiece. A worthy entry into the hall of science fiction fame. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) applies his trademark grit to do for sci-fi what he did for crime thriller in Sicario.
Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is given the assignment of a lifetime when 12 alien ships appear in random locations all over the world. Despite tremendous pressure from the military, particularly from Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Banks begins to communicate with the alien race known as the heptapods with the assistance and support of scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
You’ve heard this all before. Humans make first contact and it’s all very mystical and musical – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact etc. but you haven’t seen anything quite like this. Arrival is a contemporary sci-fi flick like Gravity or Interstellar and relies heavily on realism and scientific theory, but it’s also a bit more thought-provoking and rough around the edges. Villeneuve trusts the audience and doesn’t feel the need to dumb down subject matter for the average cinema-goer. I mean, we’re not ALL stupid, are we? Don’t answer that.. So many underlying themes happening in this perfect little puzzle. Everything comes together one piece at a time, just like a Rubik’s cube… well, a dusty Villeneuve Rubik’s cube.
There’s an obvious theme of unity even from the very beginning. Students in Bank’s university lecture are brought together and taught by Banks, she unites them through visual aids and symbols on the television, as she does with the heptapods through deciphering their unique alien script, in order to bring races together, while the military just wants to know the usual “why are they here and are they dangerous?” questions.
Arrival does for time what Interstellar did for gravity. Time is key here and Banks is the steady pendulum of a very old clock. She keeps everything ticking. The narrative, the mise-en-scene, and even a lot of props represent time or the face of a clock in some shape or form, just look at the heptapod script.
Adams is superb as Banks. Put under a giant magnifying glass by both the military AND the heptapods, we are drawn into her past. She’s been stripped of love and even makeup. A truly vulnerable character held flawlessly by Adams. I have no doubt that she’ll be one of the Oscar contenders this year, if not for this then maybe for Tom Ford’s upcoming Nocturnal Animals.
‘Raw’ and ‘gritty’ are both words that popped up frequently while watching this film and Villeneuve’s past work. Despite the science and cinematography being so well-rounded, it was the little details that made this reality. The perfectly rugby-ball-shaped craft floating just above the ground; totally minimal in design but such gravelly detail when we see it up close. This isn’t the kind of spacecraft you’d see when watching Star Wars or the glitzy new Valerian trailer, this is something that you’d see outside of your kitchen window. Also, that first proper shot of the ship in Montana with that mist rolling over the mountains? I was practically drooling. The same for the first heptapod scene – the tension in that room was so thick and felt very much like an homage to Kubrick and his iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Like the primitive alien script and language, Icelandic composer Johan Johansson has crafted a minimalist soundtrack with an emphasis on tribal sounds, singing and the cello – a soundtrack for scratching hieroglyphs into the walls of caves. The heptapod scenes wouldn’t be half of what they are without the cello. This instrument, after all, is said to be one of the closest to human vocal chords. Johansson and Villeneuve make a great team. Let’s hope they’ll stick together for future projects.
Arrival rarely struggles to entertain, and always succeeds to make you curious. It even has a bit of romance too. I’ve been waiting for a film like this all year. See it today and think about it for a long time after. It’s not just a movie, it’s something that film and English students are going to study for years to come.
Feature photo: Logo