Denis Villeneuve has become a filmmaker to rely on for a brilliant and impactful cinematic experience, yet he presents a very different one with each film. After the crime-led pictures of the past few years, here, he lends his hand to the sci-fi genre, to craft a story unlike anything you have seen or expect.
The film follows linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she is recruited to lead a team in attempting to understand the language of an alien species that have touched down in 12 different locations on Earth. Simultaneously, she is alone and grieving over events we see in short cut-aways.
What follows is a breathtaking, cerebral science-fiction (arguably one of the best films of the genre) that is both intelligent and moving. The communications-based concept at the heart of the film provides a fresh angle, unexplored in previous alien arrival films. It helps to paint the aliens’ coming in a different light, and allows a deeper, more important message to be explored. The clever concepts of linguistics and language presented in the film are balanced perfectly by the beautiful emotional thread that runs throughout, culminating in an ending that is, quite frankly, awe-inspiring, although not in the way you may think.
The crafting of the film allows a story about aliens to become much more intimate, as well as feel authentic. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautiful score is used to great effect, but Villeneuve also relishes in the moments of silence, or purely diegetic background noise. This, combined with Bradford Young’s gorgeously calm and intimate (close-ups are fairly prevalent) cinematography, helps to create a more immersive experience, as well as a naturalistic grounding in the emotions of the human characters.
Sci-fis are known for having strong female leads (something other genres should really take note of), and Louise Banks is no different. Between this and Nocturnal Animals (but mostly this), Adams stands in good stead of finally claiming her Oscar. She turns in an incredibly deep, complex and heartfelt performance, creating a character with such internal complexity, she truly feels real. Adams conveys all of the inner struggles of Banks, both in her work and as she wrestles with her grief; it is one of her best (if not the best) performances to date. As her supporting player, Jeremy Renner also turns in a great performance, as the scientist on her team, providing a lot of the film’s lighter moments (the film’s tone is wonderfully handled), as well as adding to the gravitas of the more pivotal scenes with his heartwarming character.
The film’s message of the importance of communication is a relevant and thought-provoking one as its fresh perspective on alien arrival forces us to confront and examine ourselves. This unique angle also sets it apart from its contemporaries, providing something we’ve not experienced before. While there are occasional moments of tonal similarity to films such as Interstellar and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Arrival remains its own creature.
This is a film with big themes and big ideas, but it manages to carry them off with the perfect touch of delicate subtlety. The film may not always be entirely clear throughout due to the its complex nature, but just trust that clarity will arrive, and when it does, it will hit you with an emotional power that will take you a while to digest as you gaze in awe.