Thought-provoking sci-fi film marks Arrival of A&O's winter lineup
by: Louis Oh
Jan. 30, 2017
The timing couldn’t have been more poignant. Arrival, as a film with a statement against the trigger-happy and social zero-sum instinct, originally opened in theaters immediately following the election. It was even more relevant this past weekend as A&O Films held four free screenings of the film at the McCormick Auditorium in Norris, right as the newly inaugurated administration imposed travel bans on seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Some of the best in sci-fi and genre filmmaking takes extraordinary premises to reflect, probe and explore humanity. Director Denis Villeneuve does just that in Arrival. From War of the Worlds to Independence Day, extraterrestrial encounters have long been used to mirror the anxiety and threat of the mysterious and incomprehensible “other.” While some such devices are present, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer do not present such a brazen or violent vision.
Based on the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film envisions first contact with alien visitors and the struggle to understand their intentions. Top-notch linguist Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is recruited by Colonel G.T. Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) to lead attempts at communicating with the extraterrestrial visitors. The aliens, called heptapods, look like a cross between a spider and octopus as they wait within their gigantic oval-slabbed ships hovering in 12 locations around the world.
Banks makes a major breakthrough as she quickly learns that written, rather than oral, communication is the only way to converse with the beings. With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), the lead heroine works toward understanding the heptapods, while rising tension and anxiety across the rest of the world teeters toward preemptive violence and international distrust.
There is a second narrative thread that weaves intermittently throughout the story, but revealing too much would ruin the final act’s twist and spoil the impact of the question Villeneuve leaves with the audience. Suffice it to say that the second narrative gradually molds well with the main plotline and naturally allows the film to be less about the spectacle of aliens, but of life and death, happiness and grief, choices and regret. Villeneuve and Heisserer are careful and tempered in revealing information, curiously allowing the audience to craft their own assumptions, in some cases, deceptively revealing in others. This creates an emotional tone for the film that is hopeful, yet somber.
Anchoring all of this is Adams, recently snubbed for a best actress Oscar nomination. While Whitaker and Renner liven their otherwise minimal roles, this is Adams’s vehicle. As a movie with a social and a physical scientist as protagonists, there is little bombast compared to most sci-fi fare. Even still, Adams is what makes the film so internal, and she grounds the lingering questions about her mind’s imagery. In her performance, there is determination, competence and sensitivity that makes you believe that as she burdens much inside, she may be weary but not weak.
Arrival is engrossing, and such is no small part due to the tremendous creative talent on this film. Cinematographer Bradford Young, whose last effort was Selma, is responsible for beautifully crafted and composed scenes. Notably, through work with art direction, there are many great moments that opened my eyes to texture, such as the surface of the alien craft or the floor and walls of the room where the humans and heptapods meet. Frequent Villenueve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson composed the music, which is unique yet not overbearing. It lends incredibly well and fittingly to the complex emotional ebbs and flows of the film.
As in Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, Villenueve crafts his work with vision, but not without flaws. Unless the methodical progress intrigues you, the second act’s pacing will lose some as it drops into to the deliberations of the academic protagonists. Those expecting a thicker thrill may find the grind to drag as the characters try to decipher the aliens’ circular symbols. And, in all, the internal performance, cinematic tone, and sparseness of the supporting cast may feel cold and distant.
Despite some shortcomings, Arrival is thought-provoking and ambitious – raising expectations for Villenueve's next project, Blade Runner 2049. Arrival is neither the soaring hopefulness of The Martian nor the mindless chaos of Independence Day: Resurgence. Arrival is complex, subdued and challenging. It injects aliens, the mysterious, incomprehensible “other,” only to show that what endangers us is our instinct to fear and fight. After all, “War doesn’t make winners, only widows.”