“Memory is a strange thing. We are bound by time. By its order.”
Alien ships appear in twelve locations across the globe. Why are they here? What do they want? And, critically, how do we begin to communicate with them to get these questions answered?
This may just be Villeneuve’s best film yet, and that’s saying something. It’s hard sci-fi, it’s a character driven drama, it’s a political commentary, it’s an exploration of humanity itself – and, amazingly, it manages to not only be all of these things, but do it well. Armed with an excellent premise, a visionary director, an all-star cast, an innovative cinematographer, and a beautiful score, Arrival is nothing short of a masterpiece.
What makes Arrival unique is in its effective blend of genres: name one other movie that so successfully balances a cerebral sci-fi thriller and a character-driven drama, while also tackling themes of globalization, the impact of language, and human nature itself. (Plus, any film that explores linguistics, let alone theories such as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, gets bonus points from me.) Arrival asks big questions, and unlike other films that quite frankly don’t come close (I’m looking at you, Interstellar), it actually does a satisfactory job of answering them. Its closest cousin in this regard would be Contact, which if you haven’t seen you should stop reading and go watch right now.
The storytelling in this film is so expertly crafted that I may go so far as to say transcendent. Arrival seductively draws you in, as its simple, clear premise is slowly unraveled to reveal the deep narrative and thematic complexities lying underneath. A deliberate, measured pace stands starkly against the rapid-fire structure we have become accustomed to, valuing substance over shock, human experiences over explosions. And of course Amy Adams, in a beautiful performance, grounds the picture. She perfectly captures this nuanced character, making her feel like a fully-realized, genuine human being. Watching her unravel the mysteries of the aliens and their language is just about as interesting and engaging as the mysteries themselves.
Arrival also boasts a stunning set of visuals, with Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma) behind the camera providing bold cinematographic choices, often exploring symmetry (and the significant lack thereof), and choice of focus. Like in A Most Violent Year, Arrival choses consistently interesting and striking perspectives. Notably, the use of wide shots forces the viewer to explore the vastness of both landscapes and the human experiences occurring within them. Juxtaposed against these sprawling scenes, however, are intimate Terrence Malick-esque moments, which seamlessly connect to form a varied, moving tapestry of images.
Finally, Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything, Prisoners, Sicario) supplies another utterly beautiful soundtrack, which is elevated by the inclusion the stunning “On the Nature of Daylight”. The score is tender when necessary, jarring when called for, and melds perfectly with the overall thematic intentions of the film.
If I haven’t made it clear thus far, I adored this film – it is absolutely one of the best films of the year, if not the last decade. While its slow pace and cerebral musings on language, humanity, and time may be turn offs for some viewers, Arrival is a must-see for anyone who loves science fiction or character pieces. It also may just excite you a bit more for Villeneuve’s next film, Blade Runner 2049.