Arrival (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

Instead of creating something of blind nuclear blasts and aliens sucking out our brains, Arrival is mostly about the actual logistics of dealing with extraterrestrial contact.

arrival

Arrival is the latest installment in the growing science fiction renaissance. For the last three or four consecutive years, a technically marvelous, big space film comes out containing moving themes of human progress and spirit. What I find the most interesting are the improvements that can be read by looking at these films side by side. Each one seems to build on last year’s and generally refine the approach overall. Denis Villeneuve definitely took that on, but at the same time, he made his contribution completely different than its predecessors.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is one of the country’s top linguists. Due to her skill and previous work in the government, Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) recruits her to interact with Earth’s new visitors. In spacecrafts resembling giant, stone pods that float above the ground, 12 of these vessels have landed in 12 cities across the world. The inhabitants’ language is incomprehensible; their purpose is unknowable and suspect. Dr. Banks, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), must attempt to establish communication with these beings, and decipher the messages they ultimately give.

The lofty, awe-inspiring themes of space as frontier and humanity as some intangible spirit that penetrates the universe are downplayed in this film. Shared with films like Interstellar or The Martian are themes of scientific advancement and the fate of our people. Since this is an alien invasion movie, the events come to us. Despite a vague look of being set in the near future, Arrival takes place in a time where humans, still, have not yet harnessed the power of light speed or interstellar travel. This appropriately sets us up as weaklings overpowered by the superior alien technology that allowed them to travel across galaxies to reach us. Ultimately, it gives the invaders an unsettling amount of control, providing excellent tension throughout the entire film while still pausing for though-provoking insight.

Brilliantly, instead of creating something of blind nuclear blasts and aliens sucking out our brains, Arrival is mostly about the actual logistics of dealing with extraterrestrial contact. The fact that there are several ships all over the world invites a correspondence between countries that is unprecedented. Different world leaders have opposing views on what actions to take based on the messages they think they’re receiving from the aliens. Our world is separated by borders, but we are all humans, so the actions of one nation would most likely reflect on all of us, making everyone responsible and subject to retaliation. If aliens ever did visit, before we send scientists and presidents to greet them, we’d need someone who could figure out how to actually talk to them; simply asking “Do you come in peace?” will not suffice.

Villeneuve’s prowess as a director meets these ideas wonderfully. Arrival is stunningly shot and designed. Cinematographer Bradford Young (whose work has shown up in many other great-looking movies of late) captures our planet with the appropriate vastness and sense of awe needed to contrast to the foreign aesthetic of the aliens. Speaking of that look, the aliens are both terrifying and consistent with visuals that Villeneuve typically likes to apply, mainly spider imagery—think Enemy, one of his previous films. The narrative is nonlinear and deceptive, to go along with the themes of cyclical time and future folding over present. A flashback structure is used for great poetic and emotional effect, while also surprising us and taking on new meaning as we learn more about the characters and the aliens’ purpose. It’s hard to get into specifics without spoiling anything; suffice to say the storytelling technique seeks to defy expectations.

I have a feeling Arrival will be included in my Top 10 favorite movies of 2016. It’s wholly satisfying as science fiction, but it’s also refreshing and game-changing, calling back to the approach of Kubrick and Tarkovsky, while giving us some new things to chew on. | Nic Champion

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