Denis Villeneuve hit me like a bolt of lightning back in 2013. I walked into a theater with a friend to see Prisoners since it was the only thing out that weekend either of us were interested in, and exited the theater having seen my favorite film of the year, and one of my favorites for all time. Next year, Enemy made my brain have a nervous breakdown. I watched his earlier efforts, each incredible, particularly the Hitchcockian masterpiece Incendies. Sicario pushed Villeneuve to my favorite film of the year again. I was always going to love Arrival, it was preordained. It’s both Villeneuve’s biggest film to date and his most mind-boggling one since Enemy (did anyone else catch the shocking image that was taken right out of Enemy?). It’s also a strong primer that his Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049 will no doubt be worthy of the original. Villeneuve is on a win streak that rivals the best, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist expert who is called on by the US government to initiate contact with the aliens that have landed on Earth and translate their language. Rather than traditional wide shots of cities in mayhem, Villeneuve lets the impact of the moment unfold in a more personal, terrifying and awestruck manner. People are gathered around a television. Louise’s class is near empty. Phones go off, and eventually she’s prodded into turning on the news. Note that we only see her reaction to the news channel, never the TV. It’s a gripping way to both attach ourselves to Louise in seeing this event begin through her eyes.
Villeneuve didn’t have Roger Deakins around to shoot this, so he grabbed one of the other best working DPs in Bradford Young. The quick comparison is the visuals of Terrence Malick, but Young is far better and skilled for comparisons. There is a reverence to his images, he makes poetry of science fiction fare. His lighting gives the images the feeling of an idyllic memory colliding with the grim realities of life. Montana has also never looked so wondrous on screen. Clouds roll over hills into a valley to introduce Louise and ourselves to one of the ufos up close. The design of the aliens are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There’s shades of Lovecraft, of War of the Worlds, and squids, yet completely original and intriguing. They’re wisely coated in mist, yet even when we do get clear looks, their image still boggles us.
Amy Adams is as terrific as always, but I can’t talk too much about her performance for risk of giving away too much. Strong supports in Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg give grounding to their character types. Each member of the cast simply knows the value of being in the moment, and make it seem effortless. Johann Johannson pushes his stock higher as one of the best working composers, creating an unnerving, subtle work. At times his orchestrations sound like an ancient alien dialect being communicated. That’s all I can really say to describe it. See it, and hopefully you’ll hear what I mean. The filmmakers also have perhaps the best cinematic use of Max Richter’s heart-wrenching “On the Nature of Daylight.”
Arrival is a film that leaves me with many questions, yet I’m content with receiving no answers to them. It beckons another watch with the knowledge of its secrets and structure, which is similar to Louise’s choices. It throws so much at you – twists, turns, revelations – in the final act leaving bits of your brain scattered in the aisles. But it’s okay that the details aren’t clear, because the emotions are. The beginning is the end is the beginning. Love and hope are our only way forward. It’s a call for the better parts of our humanity, and lord knows we could use it right now.