REVIEW: Arrival [2016]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 116 minutes | Release Date: November 11th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Denis Villeneuve
Writer(s): Eric Heisserer / Ted Chiang (story “Story of Your Life”)

“A desire for more cows”

While Arrival is very much a Denis Villeneuve film right down to the similarities between his lead Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams)—thrust into an overwhelming military-run situation and doing her best to hold it accountable—with that of Sicario‘s Kate Macer as well as a visually surreal callback to the much-talked about and deciphered conclusion of Enemy, you cannot deny its expert plotting courtesy of screenwriter Eric Heisserer. This is the guy responsible for B-level genre remakes A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing inexplicably delving into Ted Chiang‘s Nebula-winning novella Story of Your Life and adapting it with meticulous precision. There’s a lot happening right in front of our eyes that we don’t even think to see until a subtle yet no less show-stopping reveal.

The idea of an alien “first contact” event is obvious—this is what lays at the backbone of the story. Twelve shell-like spacecrafts have turned up at differing locations around the world without seeming importance save the nations themselves. America’s isn’t above Washington DC or New York City; it’s in the Montanan plains of rolling cloud country. Why are they here? We don’t know. How did they get here? Again, the answer is unknown. This is why Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits linguist Dr. Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). If they can create a form of communication through syntax and mathematics that the UK, China, Russia, and more have yet to crack, the truth about the “heptapods” being friend or foe will be discovered.

But this trajectory is surface fodder. It’s the through line from arrival to hopeful departure. What lies underneath is the notion of our amorphous humanity. There’s the constant push and pull of optimism and cynicism putting Banks and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) at odds while Weber attempts to mediate. There’s the historical precedent of force from nations seen as our enemies (China and Russia) pressuring Earth’s hand by prematurely flying off the handle or refusing to cooperate. These aliens have journeyed to a planet with no clear leader and they’ve spread out accordingly. Will cooler heads prevail or will a bullet get fired to spark abject annihilation? Arrival is about how we respond to conflict as a species with centuries of horrors dictating our course of action.

It’s a call for diplomacy and compromise; a look at scenarios we may face in the near future asking us to choose between reason and threats for unification. And it’s a story about imperative sacrifices that are as much about the greater good as personal happiness regardless of tragic inevitability. A question is asked: “If you knew what would happen in your life, would you change anything?” Our actions forever lead us towards a very specific path. Some call it God’s Will. Religion aside, however, tragedy can birth joy. Think about something bad that occurred in your life and follow where the aftermath led you. Would you have found love, wealth, career, or health had it not occurred? Probably. But perhaps not the version you currently cherish.

How these underlying themes present is unique in that we become falsely confident in our handle on their inclusion. The film doesn’t start with aliens, violence, or even promise. It begins with death—Dr. Banks’ daughter’s death. This event becomes a part of what she is and what she will do, including accepting Weber’s recruitment. She feeds off her memories, pain and unyielding bliss alike. It helps her to realize what a life is worth and the lengths she’ll go to preserve as many as possible. So when Weber makes mention of a fellow linguist at another university, she knows the one thing separating them. Where Banks wields hope, Danvers employs fear. In a militarized room with fingers on the kill switch, hope is necessary and in short supply.

But this isn’t some clichéd motivation brought about by the fridging of a loved one a la most stories on big screen and small. It’s so much more and yet I cannot elaborate how without doing a disservice to the film’s inherent grace at providing its true mechanism. Just know that Heisserer never manipulates. His script is too smart for that. He merely spins details so we place incomplete meaning upon them. He hides the full picture because it remains unknown to his characters. A weapon might be in play, but we struggle to understand its origins along with Banks and Donnelly. Concepts like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and principles from French mathematician Pierre de Fermat enter and we bask in the beauty of complex theories put into practice.

Villeneuve is a master at cultivating atmosphere and mood and that skill complements this story brilliantly. Definitely more Enemy than Sicario as far as pacing and art direction go—the heptapods are gorgeously constructed to look like a human hand with expressive knuckles, their language a coffee stain mix between Arabic and Gallifreyan—it retains the same level of somber introspection every entry into his oeuvre does. He transports us to worlds that are very much like our own despite never having experienced the horrors or promises they hold within. He creates exterior metaphors for the inner turmoil we all face, personifying our darkest thoughts and brightest desires within a trying situation whose ramifications travel far beyond its specific borders. Arrival epitomizes helping others in order to save ourselves.

Adams is wonderful, falling into memory in a way that constantly infers upon the present. She must endure the sorrow of what happened to figure out how to prevent countless other parents from suffering the same fate. The government officials employing her may not like her methods (the “we need results yesterday” mentality is in full force), but they cannot deny her efficacy. And as her Banks moves closer to the heptapods causing mass panic with shock jock life or death ultimatums, they reciprocate. Renner, Whitaker, Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, and even Mark O’Brien‘s misguided Captain Marks flesh out this claustrophobic environment, but it’s the aliens coined “Abbott” and “Costello” who join Adams to become its heart. So while nothing’s therefore quite as it seems, everything’s exactly as it should be.

[1] Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures
[2] Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures
[3] Forest Whitaker as Col. Weber in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

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