Published on November 14th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Director Denis Villeneuve is back with one helluva sci-fi thinker, Arrival, which is an astoundingly well made movie with some heavy themes and tense moments.
If you knew all the bad things that would happen to you in your life, would you still make the same decisions? Would you still live each moment, still associate with each person you love (or hate), and still experience what time put in front of you? Could you take steps to do away with your pain and sadness, even though it could change things you love irrevocably? Would you gladly accept your own anguish, knowing that it’s the only way for you to also reach zeniths of joy, love, and contentment?
This is one of the questions that director Denis Villeneuve is asking in Arrival, based on the Nebula Award-winning (and Hugo nominated) short story, by Ted Chiang. Villeneuve also directed movies like Incendies, Sicario, Prisoners, and the excellent Enemy, which was shot for the heck of it because they had time to kill while shooting Prisoners. If he makes this kind of amazing film just to kill some time, he’s certainly a real talent to keep watching. He proves that again with Arrival.
Amy Adams plays a brilliant linguist (a cunning linguist? Sorry, couldn’t resist) that is brought in by the government to try to establish communication with an alien race. Creatures from another world have landed in multiple sites across the world, which causes international tension and a race against time as the Chinese and some of their allies prepare for war on the aliens.
Arrival blends a few different moods with precision; it’s tense and paranoid; it’s beautiful and poetic; it’s mysterious but heart on sleeve; it’s both sad and joyous.
So I want to tell you that it’s amazing, but to be clear, I have to also let you know that Arrival is not a slam-bang action thriller. That’s not to say there aren’t some heart-pounding and thrilling moments as the world lies on the brink of war. But Arrival is thoughtful science fiction. It wanders into subjects like determinism and linguistic relativity, some heavy concepts. Yet, it never dips too far into the murk of such philosophizing. It tells a compelling story that brings in elements in a way that makes them easy to understand. To steal from (er…paraphrase) Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival Director John Allison, Arrival is, “a smaller story about bigger things.”
A lot of the tension also comes from the properties of the movie itself. It’s beautifully shot, but also somber and contemplative, with mise en scene involving vast green fields blanketed in rolling fog as it pours over the hills. The sound design and the music are minimal, but affecting.
The acting is breezy, but good. This is probably some of the better work that Amy Adams has done. I have nothing against her, but I’ve always felt she’s a lightweight in A-list shoes. She doesn’t open up a can of acting chop whoop ass here, but her strength lies in that fact, in her subtle nature.
Jeremy Renner is likeable as another scientist on the project, and Forest Whitaker projects quiet gravitas as the military leader on the operation (which is a nice change from the ‘kill anything that moves’ military stereotype we might normally see — he’s just a normal guy that happens to be in charge. He answers to other masters, but he also helps urge the scientists along when he can).
The movie leans toward melodrama in parts, but it earns those moments, and these actors not hamming it up helps achieve that. I am very sensitive to melodrama — it makes my teeth hurt. But in this case, it was handled tastefully enough that I was bought in.
I am admittedly a science fiction buff, so I have a proclivity for being into this stuff more than some people, but Arrival is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It was a tour de force of filmmaking talent meeting a well-told story with smart themes. I hope this gem of a film finds a proper audience. I left the theatre emotionally affected, thinking about everything from the nature of the universe to the importance of my family. That’s a good movie.