I saw the best movie I’ve seen all year this past Sunday!
Dennis Villeneuve is fast becoming one of my favorite directors. His approach to filmmaking is just so distinct and engaging that its difficult not to just marvel at it more often than not. Whether it’s the tense and trippy psychological thrills of Enemy, or the grim desperation of Sicario, dude knows what he’s doing in that director’s chair. So naturally, when I heard Villeneuve was taking a trip to sci-fi land with his new film Arrival, I was pretty much all-in. But with trailers and marketing suggesting something very different from his usual fare, was Villeneuve able to keep on his roll with Arrival?
Arrival follows linguist Louise Banks (Adams) who gets the call to action when Earth is seemingly “invaded” by a bunch of strange, shell-like alien crafts that land in various places across the planet. Teaming up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) and US Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker), Louise works against the clock and rising global tensions to try and decipher why these strange aliens have decided to come to our world.
Y’know, sometimes, certain films just feel like they arrived at just the right time (haha, see what I did there? I’m sorry). If you’ll indulge me in getting mildly political for a moment, it feels like we as a collective people have never been more divided, on whatever lines those may be, but nevertheless horribly divided. And as that divide keeps growing and growing, it seems like we’re beginning to understand each other less and less, and perhaps more worrying than that, the desire to understand each other is being lost with it. What Arrival is ultimately is a story of bridging the gap of understanding through just, well…listening. Actually listening, trying to learn, to educate oneself and reach an understanding, without just resorting to brutish cudgels of hate and “othering” away those we don’t understand. And for me, to have seen a film that so smartly and so elegantly navigates these incredibly charged ideas through such an interesting sci-fi concept just feels like the kind of thing we all really need right now. An with everything that’s going on around the world right now, its hard not to see Arrival as a powerful statement about our need to bridge those gaps of understanding and come together. Anyway, you can make of that spiel what will you, but for me, it was that core idea that made Arrival such a beautifully uplifting film for me.
Those sentiments aside, Arrival is still a masterfully made film. Villeneuve’s love for long takes on grand scale could not feel more appropriate when conveying the sheer scale and ominous sense of the unknown when it comes to the alien ships. The way the camera lingers on the alien ships and the way its slowly tracks up the breadth of the ships, or even the subtle use of the Hitchcock pull just does so much to convey a sense of scale and the mindset of the characters: it’s just wonderful. With that said, there are some times where these long takes, lingering shots, and the abundance of close-ups can at times border on the overindulgent, but these times are few and far between. A score that nails a perfect tone for what we’re seeing accompanies the cinematography excellently: it’s a mix of off-putting alien sounds and the hauntingly beautiful that stays with you and is instantly memorable. It’s honestly difficult for me to do this all justice just describing it here in writing; it’s really something that has to be experienced in its own right.
Arrival boasts a cast with a number of marque names in it, and for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Of course its Amy Adam’s performance as Louise Banks that proves to the be the show-stealer: she’s fantastic in just about every scene, and her performance makes her feel like the most human character in Arrival, though that’s not to take too much away from the likes of Renner and Whitaker, who deliver fine performances in their own right. With that said however, its interesting that a film so dedicated to the idea of understanding over fear doesn’t do a great deal to make us understand much about its characters: while they aren’t boring or uninspired by any means, they do often come across as a bit flat and lacking in depth, even while strong performances from the cast imbue them with the depth they’re missing. The relative lack of characterization and depth is balanced out by a script that is intelligent, thoughtful, and very nuanced: combined with Villeneuve’s direction, Arrival’s plot and characters just feel so credible and believable in spite of their deficiencies. The only time when Arrival begins to stray in the strength of it’s plotting and narrative is towards its end, where things start to get a little messy (for reasons I can’t really divulge here). But again, I really can’t stress enough that these are very minor foibles in what is otherwise a brilliant film.
Arrival is the best movie I’ve seen this year. A powerful and smart sci-fi tale with an interesting twist that is beautifully crafted and incredibly thoughtful and elegant in its approach to its material that is all crafted around the truly beautiful core of bridging the gap of understanding beyond our fears. You owe it to yourself to get out and see Arrival while it’s still in cinemas