Denis Villeneuve, one of Canada’s only current high profile filmmakers, softens here. Where Sicario was hard-edged, Arrival is tender; where Prisoners was set in a moral grey, Arrival sits in an uncomplicated blue.
That said, Arrival’s cinematography is sleek, and its score is minimal, powerful, and versatile. Both these elements relate it enough to Villeneuve’s filmography that it is not destined to become his Punch-Drunk Love. His movement into sci-fi also seems inevitable, considering the announcement that he will direct the new Blade Runner sequel, and many of the aspects of the difficult Enemy.
Eight mysterious black monoliths – one of many references to 2001: A Space Odyssey – plunge from the sky. They hang above the earth in what seem like arbitrary places. Some groups of people immediately bow to them, or ready their weapons; others tap their most skilled linguists and scientists.
Louise (Amy Adams) comes on as America’s linguist. In an opening series of shots that wants to make you feel the way Up did, though it never quite does, we learn that some time ago her teenage daughter died of a disease. To be perfectly honest, this seems like a cheap trick to make us fall for Louise before we even know her name. If there had been a little more setup it would be okay, but that her daughter died is not the aspect of that traumatic event that matters later, which is why it just seems like a tool.
Also, don’t we like Amy Adams already?
Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner, who smartly goes small in his performance), the scientist, venture into the alien monolith that’s landed nearest to them in a field that sometimes looks too much like a mountain range version of a Salvador Dalí painting, but is no doubt beautiful, and here is where real fun begins, visually and emotionally.
Inside, two aliens appear shrouded in fog behind a kind of wall of glass. They paint symbols against the glass with what looks like squid’s ink, and they “speak” in low grumbles and bellows reminiscent of whales.
Once the symbols appear, Louise and Ian get to work. As they slowly decipher the alien language, the military breathes down their neck with 80s action movie impatience. The last time I saw a dynamic so black and white – where one party only sees a future using action, and the other (obviously smarter and more empathetic) party wants to communicate – was in Jurassic Park, or maybe Peter Jackson’s King Kong. The point is this is an element of the movie that tends to drag down the rest of it since the military presence looms so large throughout. The one good thing we get out of a military that so badly doesn’t understand what Louise and Ian are doing is a teaching montage, and when the two specialists explain every step of their plan to the military, they explain their plan to us. Some might argue it’s a necessary evil but if that’s the case I would’ve liked a
variation on the scene formula Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Hesserer use for every lesson.
I don’t want to spoil anything else because – although I don’t feel certain plot points are properly setup, and that certain others are archaic – the plot’s twists (both visual and character-based), and the experimentation with a plot that doesn’t immediately rely on an alien attack, mixed with the lead actors’ fantastic performances, absolutely make Arrival worth seeing.
Image Courtesy of bykst