Sunday, November 13, 2016
Arrival is a splendidly restrained science fiction film, one that in fact may not become as successful as it deserves to be because of the subtlety with which it addresses its concerns. The film's "political" message - relevant these days to a remarkable degree - is really a human one: Our civilization can only survive through sharing knowledge and an openness to consideration of all possible outcomes. It's a message that director Denis Villenueve handles with a welcome light touch after the heavier Prisoners and Sicario. I'm not sure whether or not the structure of Arrival was Villenueve's idea, but the way that our assumptions about film grammar are toyed with keeps the film from didacticism. Arrival requires close attention, but the rewards are worth the effort.
A prologue gives us information about linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). A child and a marriage, both gone now, and we find Louise living a life where her ocean view is the only company. Louise appears to have no girlfriends or even close colleagues, and so when 12 alien craft appear at locations around the world she has no one to share her anxiety with. Her first visitor is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who wants Louise to translate the aliens' language. Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (a warm Jeremy Renner) are on their way to Montana. The scenes of Louise and Donnelly trying to communicate with the aliens - who communicate in circular symbols that represent complex thoughts -have a sense of wonder that's leavened with reality. Can Louise become fluent in the aliens' language before their true purpose is carried out? Will another country (China is the main concern here) get nervous and attack one of the spacecraft? The CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is ready to pull the plug when Louise translates one of the aliens' first messages as "Offer weapon".
It would be giving away too much to describe more plot, but part of the pleasure of Arrival is the craft that Villenueve and his team bring to the story. Villenueve isn't afraid to draw out the tension in a moment, and the combination of the familiar (a scissor lift) and the frightening (the lack of gravity) in the humans' first entry into the alien ship is exactly right. The nervousness of Louise and the others in this scene is pitched perfectly, and the whole film is helped by the simple elegance of Patrice Vermette's production design. Amy Adams gets to show all her cards here; it's a sublime turn that contains hidden depths, and Adams pulls off the always difficult feat of appearing to think believably on screen. The screenplay can't quite hold everything that it wants to: There's a subplot about some soldiers who want to attack the aliens that feels rushed and a Renner voice-over is used to compress the passage of time. But these are minor issues. The climax of Arrival involves a simple conversation between people from different cultures, and this excellent film dares to suggest that nothing could be more important than that.