What would you do if you could go back in time and change things? Would you alter that one decision you regret, change several moments in your life for what you believe to be for the better? Or would you leave things as is, realizing that you are who you are because of those experiences? It’s a question that carries a lot of weight in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” and it’s a question that makes the ending that much more emotionally potent. On the surface, it’s a sci-fi and mystery film about aliens arriving on our planet. But the film isn’t as superficial as it looks on the surface. Like its aliens, “Arrival” is multidimensional, sometimes philosophical, and far more deep than it leads you to believe.
Director Denis Villeneuve has never shied away from questions of morality and intriguing story vehicles to get a message across. It’s part of what makes him a strong director in his ability to bring some food for thought within a complex narrative. The film opens with a voice-over by Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Louise talks about time, relaying her thoughts on it to her daughter, who we see through various stages of her life, and about beginnings and endings.
A linguist and professor, Louise is asked to help the military, headed by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), decode an alien language after twelve unidentified ships arrive and situate themselves in various locations around the world. They aren’t flying saucers, either. Rather, they’re smooth, half oval ships that are empty and don’t follow the rules of Earth’s gravity. They look almost like smooth pebbles. Upon closer inspection, they’re just as beautiful to look at as they are terrifying.
With the help of scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team, Louise spends a long time attempting to communicate and decipher what the two aliens are trying to tell them and what their business is on Earth. The longer time goes on, the more international governments start to panic and China and Russian leaders threaten to take aggressive action against them. But Louise never gives up. As she grows closer to the aliens and deciphering their language, and as desperation to stop humanity from waging a war against their new visitors begins to set in, Louise finds herself connecting with the aliens in a different way. The concept of time, along with her own memories, begin to overlap and weave themselves together to paint a clear picture of exactly what is going on.
The film is full of sounds and images which work together to create a strong narrative. Hollywood has long portrayed aliens as these green beings with ears on top of their heads, or in many cases, humanoids with just a couple of differences that distinguishes them from us. “Arrival” doesn’t take this approach and mostly refrains from showing the aliens, which are named Heptapods, in their entirety. Instead, we’re mostly privy to their lower halves while what largely sounds like whale noises makes up a majority of their sound. Perhaps what’s most fascinating about their exchanges with Louise is watching them bridge the gap of communication in a language completely unheard of before. It’s complex and the film takes us on the journey to language discovery in an organic way. As Louise bridges the gap between them, the more the mystery begins to unravel.
Although the mystery and sci-fi aspect of “Arrival” is wonderful, it’s Amy Adams’ Louise who is the foundation amid all the background chaos. When the political and global tensions rise, it’s she who remains grounded and level-headed. Adams gives one of her best performances here. There’s a lot going on with her character and many aspects of her story are told through flashbacks, memories playing on a loop; Adams excels at heightening the emotional story of her character through expressions and reactions. Jeremy Renner is very much a supporting character but does get his moments to shine. In trying to keep certain subplots a mystery, his character is less-developed than Adams’, but it works out once the end is revealed. Forest Whitaker, unfortunately, is generally rendered to the background throughout the movie, dictating only when necessary in his role as colonel.
The storytelling is often non-linear and plays into the over-arching dynamic of time and its intricacies. Villeneuve poses several questions and although there are questions about time and choices, with him, his underlying question is always this: What would you have done? Ultimately, and most especially in the final ten minutes, the film isn’t about the aliens at all. They are simply the road to greater realization. “Arrival” is one of Villeneuve’s strongest films yet. The cinematography alone is beautiful and makes for one of this year’s most aesthetically pleasing films. “Arrival” is a masterful convergence of sights, sounds, imagery, memories, and the constant fascination of time. The film is dynamic with a strong central character and Villeneuve is able to intensify the film by using flashbacks as a device rather than allow them to hinder the film. Furthermore, it’s the pondering thoughts it leaves us with in the end that are perhaps its most powerful asset.
"Arrival" is a masterful convergence of sights, sounds, imagery, memories, and the constant fascination of time. The film is dynamic with a strong central character. Furthermore, it's the pondering thoughts it leaves us with in the end that are perhaps its most powerful asset.