We often take language, the words we speak to each other, for granted. For many, language is just words. Arrival takes a much deeper look into how language connects us, how certain words can inspire fear, anger, and even love. It is science fiction at its finest, revealing something about human nature in a fantastic setting.
Brilliant linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must find a way to communicate with a mysterious alien race when twelve extraterrestrial ships dubbed “Shells” land in different parts of the world. That is as much plot as I am willing to divulge, as going any further would spoil the experience.
While Arrival has a very deliberate pace, director Denis Villeneuve uses his actors’ performances and a number of beautiful long takes to create a sense of anticipation throughout the early stages of the film. He makes it very clear that this is film about humans and how they react to extraordinary events.
When the ships first land at the start of the film, we see Louise teaching a class. As more of her students get notices on their phones, they watch the landings on television. The camera never leaves Louise’s face as she reacts. We only get glimpses of the ships on television, but this is not a visual effects spectacular. It is a human story.
That said, the film is still visually beautiful. The opening scenes are a mixture of long takes and close ups that set a certain mood that follows Louise throughout the rest of the film. When the ship in the U.S. is eventually shown, it’s awe-inspiring as Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young slowly circle the stone-like ship. For a film about language, the visual style keeps you at the edge of your seat throughout.
Communicating with others no matter the difficulty is a consistent theme. Whenever Louise runs into obstacles in her efforts with the aliens, it is because people stop talking to each other. Whether it be other governments or the soldiers working with her, she is constantly under cut by people who cannot think beyond the norms of human language.
Amy Adams is great as Louise, inhabiting a troubled but brilliant woman doing her best to unlock the puzzle that the aliens have given humanity. For a linguist, she actually does not speak very often, but Adams speaks volumes with her face and body language. It is probably one of her best and most subtle roles.
Jeremy Renner as physicist Ian Donnelly does some good work as well. It is nice to see Renner play a less intense character than usual, as Ian is like a wide-eyed kid in his interactions with both the aliens and Louise. His chemistry with Adams is decent, but does not set the film ablaze.
Forest Whitaker is good in the role of a military commander, though he does a weird thing with his voice that is a bit distracting. Whether it is an accent or a manner of speaking is unclear, but it felt unnecessary.
But most people will be talking about Arrival’s conclusion. It is sure to split some audiences…at my screening, I noticed several people leaving grumbling under their breath. It all comes together beautifully, with the visual storytelling and dialogue perfectly setting up a shocking twist.
The dialogue brings us one way, then spins delightfully into a different direction. And the reveal is handled perfectly: It is said in one line. There is no huge, overly cut recap. The film lets the line wash over us as we slowly realize what happened. It leads to a truly bittersweet but hopeful ending.
This review is a little shorter than usual because Arrival is a film that you should go into with as little information as possible. It is truly a film that has to be experienced firsthand because not only is it great science fiction, it is also one of the better films of the year.
As an aside, Arrival is also a hopeful film in a time when America is extremely divided. As I said, communication and working together is a major theme in the film. When we cut ourselves off from each other, we do not talk and we cannot understand each other.
The film presents us with an America that must work together to come to an understanding not only with each other but with the world as a whole. Science fiction likes to hold up a mirror to our society and hopefully the message is not overlooked.
SCORE: 9 OUT OF 10