Dr. Banks (Amy Adams) is invited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. While UFOs descend worldwide and humanity starts panicking, communication between countries breaks down. Communicating with the aliens becomes ever more pressing to understand their purpose here on Earth.
Arrival is a dream come true. Director Denis Villeneuve’s new film is an adaptation of the short story “Story of Your Life” by the talented author Ted Chiang. Chiang’s work is very highly regarded in the SF circles, and he is known for his talent of combining high concept science fiction with a very humane intelligence. His work is suffused with a calm compassion and precision. Villeneuve’s biggest accomplishment here is that he managed to translate both these qualities – high-brow SF and compassion – to the big screen. Two years ago, Christopher Nolan tried to do the same with Interstellar (2014), but in comparison with Arrival, Interstellar seems ham-fisted and messy. Arrival in contrast is a lean, economically told story that packs an emotional punch and leaves you thinking for hours.
Villeneuve also has a quality that is his own, and his biggest forte is creating tension. We’ve seen his mastery of tension in Sicario (2015) and Prisoners (2013), and here he gives another masterclass in the first hour of the film. The story starts out slow, but builds towards reveal after reveal, and it is all building towards the meeting with the aliens for the first time. When that finally happens, expect to be at the edge of your seat while your monkey brain screams fight or flight! There are nods here towards 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and shades of Prometheus (2012).
The cinematography is a highlight of the film, as it always is in Villeneuve’s films. The camera often follows Dr. Banks, the main character, from the back, and tracks her as she is walking towards things that are as yet unseen. As if she is walking towards an unknown future. The camera sometimes deliberately withholds information to raise the tension, and then slowly pans to let us take everything in. One scene, where we approach a UFO with a helicopter, will be a classic scene that is seared into the brain, an example to show other people the effect of these panning techniques. You could also take this scene as an example of effective sound design. The droning rhythm of the helicopter and the muffled sounds of the headphone, and suddenly the eerie tones of Johann Johannsson’s score. Also something we’ve seen before in Sicario, but it works like a charm.
Another thing that Villeneuve added to the story is lifting it up to a more global, epic level. The challenge of communication, which is the heart of the story, is also extrapolated to the communication problems between countries and the troubled road towards international cooperation. This is perhaps the weakest element of the story. We get echoes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the arrival of aliens had the purpose of shoving a moral down our throats. It feels forced in Arrival and that storyline doesn’t really unfold in a smooth way.
Arrival shows a confidence to present an epic story in a very restrained way. Lots of questions are raised by the plot, but we are merely invited to think deeper about it instead of explaining everything to us. We do not rush into the story to get to the sugary stuff, but have to rely on a slow buildup and a slow burn. Instead of quick cuts and chaotic action, we get sustained shots that allow us to be there at that time and place. In a year where independence Day: Resurgence offered us a hurricane of piss, Arrival shines as an intelligent and humane film.
With a sequel to Blade Runner coming up for Villeneuve, he seems to step into the same niche as director Neill Blomkamp, who goes for darker, gritty SF (District 9 (2009); Elysium (2013)). Blomkamp however needs a better screenwriter, as his latest movies Elysium and Chappie went pear-shaped. He is going for a new Alien movie, but I think Villeneuve will be the Blomkamp that we were hoping for.