Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is the first film of 2016 that caught me off guard. It’s not often that a movie that appears to be about extraterrestrials can go in an entirely different direction with a twist that’s equally refreshing and beautiful. Anyone who thinks this film is just a typical science fiction picture will be pleasantly surprised.
Arrival is based on Ted Chaing’s Story of Your Life. This movie is about an alien invasion where no shots are ever fired or land ever conquered. About a dozen alien spacecraft appear out nowhere and just hover over the earth’s surface. These Aliens invite the humans on board two times a day by opening up an antigravity door.
Tension is high, and the people of Earth are already assuming the worst about our new visitors. In many people’s minds, this is the beginning of the end, and very few feel there’s a way out of this that doesn’t involve violence.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) doesn’t share that same sentiment. Dr. Banks is of the opinion that once we can figure out how to communicate with our alien visitors that we can find a way to achieve some common ground. Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) doesn’t share her optimism. Weber doesn’t see how being able to decipher their language which appears to be nothing more than inkblots will lead to any resolution that doesn’t involve military action. Banks’ intellect is her greatest ally as she works to understand this alien language while battling depression stemming from an incident occurring in the first ten minutes of the film.
Theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) joins Weber’s quest to decipher the aliens language. Donnelly and Banks are not portrayed as rivals and are more partners in their pursuit. While all of this is transpiring, the aliens haven’t made any attempt to be aggressive. However, Russia and China aren’t taking any chances are preparing military strikes to take out
One of the highlights of this film was the work of Cinematographer Bradford Young. Young, whose love of natural light was certainly evident when he shot Selma, places emphasis on character in Arrival and it elevated the overall quality of the film. He understands that this film is about the human condition; thus we see more shots of Dr. Banks and Mr. Donnelly than we do of any spacecraft.
Amy Adams is remarkable in the role of Dr. Banks. Her portrayal is a mixture of both strength and introspection. Her performance ranks right up there with Jessica Chastain in Interstellar and Sandra Bullock Gravity. While Adams certainly shine the brightest, Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whittaker deliver powerful performances as well.
Eric Heisserer showed great precision in adapting the source material for the screen. Heisserer (who most recently wrote the screenplay for Lights Out) made the tiniest of changes that impacted the film both thematically and in overall quality. For Example, In Ted Chaing’s Story Of Your Life, the aliens don’t ever make it to Earth and only communicate with Dr. Banks via a Video monitor. Heisserer tweaked the original narrative and had those aliens make it all the way to Earth. First off, this significantly improved the dramatic tone of the film. Secondly, it shined a great light on humanity as well. How would we react if alien visitors just showed up one day? Would you want the government just to blow them out of the sky or would you want to achieve an understanding of their intentions? Furthermore, how is it different than how many Americans treat people who are “different” in 2016?
Arrival shows us how powerful language and understanding each other can be, no matter where we are from. A lesson that certainly rings true now more than ever.