Star Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Denis Villeneuve is a genius. His most recent film, Arrival, has taught me this. Prior to this film I had not seen any of his other films, but they have since been moved closer to the top of my Netflix DVD queue (yes, that is still a thing). Through his directing I was able to experience the film in a way that almost transcends my human experience of the world around me. The unfortunate thing about the film is how difficult it is to write about the film without spoiling the ending. Hopefully, this review will contain no spoilers.
Based on the short story titled, Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang, Arrival opens with linguist, and college professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) on a seemingly normal when day 12 alien (a word I struggle to write just like the film struggles to use) ships touch down at 12 random points around the globe. This sends the world into a frenzy. People start panicking and looting and governments enforce curfews through martial law. Banks is called upon by the military to lead a team to facilitate communication with these otherworldly visitors along with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Banks and Donnelly are forced to race against time as some of the world superpowers view the aliens as threats.
The thing that makes Arrival such a great film is the way it anchors itself to Louise’s point of view. From the opening narration to the end of the film, everything the audience experiences is from her perspective, with the exception of one section of narration from Ian. All of the memories scene in the film belong to Louise. We experience the uncertainty of the aliens the same way Louise does. The military slowly gives Louise information about the aliens, which in turn provides information to us. By the end of the film, there are still things about the aliens we don’t understand, but we still understand just as much as Louise does, which is more than anyone else in the film. As a result, Louise seems like the most human person in the movie. She embodies an intelligent, hardworking individual like Ian and all of the military men, but during the moments when her memories wash over her, we can see the hurt hat her character feels. The closer the whole world gets to war, the more fear we feel from Louise for the aliens. All other characters become secondary to Louise as the story progresses. Because we gain more insight into Louise’s life through the memories and through her point of view, all other characters become secondary. Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker are both fantastic actors and they bring nothing short of excellence to their roles, but their characters are also nothing more than ways to progress the plot forward. Renner embodies the courage that Louise lacks. He is curious and somewhat fearless of the aliens. He is hopeful and optimistic. The closest we get to development with him is his newfound appreciation for language at the end of the film. Whitaker embodies the voice of the military at home and abroad. He wants to see Louise and her team succeed, but he is not afraid to resort to force with the aliens if he has to. The film tries hard to make China the antagonist to the story, but I’d argue that all military entities make up the antagonist since they are ready at a moments notice to try and destroy the aliens.
For a film about translating an alien language, the film has a decently quick pace to it. At no point in the film was I bored with what was happening. The film switches between moments when Louise is “talking” to the aliens, to moments outside of the spaceship. With each visit inside the ship, Louise gets closer and closer to translating their written language. Thanks to a scene early in the movie, we are able to understand why Louise asks the questions she does and how that will eventually lead to the aliens answering the question, “Why are you here?” Outside of the ship, we see the powder keg getting closer and closer to blowing up. The media puts their own spin on the events taking place, while military intelligence tells another story. These three narratives intertwine to create a tension that builds throughout the movie. I found that the film might have been too optimistic about how earth would react to alien visitors, but the movie sold me on the optimism since we can see tension building through the world and through the military ranks. Eventually we do see small instances of that tension breaking as the world structure starts to fall apart.
What Denis Villeneuve brings together is easily one of the best science fiction movies of our generation. There is little action, but the film raises plenty of questions about our identity as a human race and the nature of our fate. I am not a linguist, but from what I hear the film is fairly accurate in its depiction of language translation. It paints a scenario in our world and makes it seem like it could actually happen. There are no laser guns, no flying cars, and no robots. Just us in our world as we experience it today, and some alien ships. The ships themselves are barebones enough to seem futuristic, while avoiding anything that could date these ships in the future. Everything about the aliens is minimalistic, and while that adds an air of mystery to the aliens, it also adds a sense of amazement at the technology they have harnessed, and it avoids adding anything that could make the aliens look bad in 10-20 years. This is one of those films that will be around forever, and should be added the pantheon of great science fiction films.