Last night I watched Arrival for the third time. Obviously I am a fan. It is probably my favorite film this year but the answer to that question changes frequently. What I love most about Arrival is that it is a brilliant compilation of everything that makes up a cinematic experience. The film grabs you on an emotional level, visceral level and esthetic level. It is what I love most about cinema which is a director in full control of his craft and vision and working with supremely talented artists to enhance and fulfill that vision.
When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.
The first thing that I am a sucker for is when a film has a distinctive tone and mood. Arrival’s tone is set from the very first frame. In what is essentially a prologue Denis Villeneuve immediately grabs you and let’s you know that you will be dealing with real human emotions, the perception of time and events that will change the characters lives forever. But you’re also immediately aware of the craft that is clearly on display. Arrival’s cinematographer, Bradford Young, has an eye that serves up a gorgeous palette and continues to deliver as the film goes on. The framing, lighting and floating ethereal movement set the stage for the surreal and dream like story that unfolds. Young’’s contribution can not be overstated. He gives the film a feel that not only makes it distinctive but also constantly has the audience guessing what is real and what is not. A look that only serves the film as the mind bending story unfolds. The film goes far beyond the image while it is a master class in visuals, it also incorporates layered and nuanced sound design, music and pitch perfect acting to tell a story with meaning and depth.
The haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson delivers an etherial otherworldly voice to the film. As the main characters arrive at the alien ship the score is reminiscent of whale calls. It is mesmerizing and at the same time it also lays the foundation of recognizable but unfamiliar forms of communication. Much like whales, with the aliens we know they are communicating but we don’t know what they are saying. Throughout the film the score is a perfect companion that sets the tone for where you are in the story and with the arc of the characters. It has moments of tension and even races in certain scenes but it’s at it’s best when it is telling the audience that it is in store for the unknown. Score's often help set a films mood, and Arrival is no exception in fact it is a shining example. The gravity defying entry into the alien craft would play much differently paired with Yackety Sax, but the deep tonal score sets the stage for the scene perfectly giving the right amount of tension and wonder. Throughout the film the score is a perfect companion with the sound design mixing in elements that blend perfectly with the hum of machines or the dense fog of the alien's habitat. Together the sound design and score allows the audience to always be positioned with the emotional state of the characters.
As with most great films you enter through the characters and Arrival delivers here as well. The entire cast is great but the two main characters carry most of the film on their shoulders and Amy Adams does most of that lifting. The story of Arrival is truly her story. She has the biggest emotional arc and the fate of the world is literally on her shoulders. But her emotional growth in the film is the greatest journey and Adams breathes life into the role in every frame. You feel the weight of the world on her face and in her body language, but you also see the strength of the character as she asserts her knowledge and expertise to conduct the communication with the aliens the way she sees fit. And in a surprise the emotional connection that she ends up developing with the two heptopod aliens is truthful and earned. Jeremy Renner has a smaller role but in the hands of a less capable actor it might feel like a lesser role. While Renner’s Ian isn’t the lynchpin to the story that Adam’s Louise is, he is perfectly pitched to deliver what feels like authentic person. Renner’s theoretical physicist character is assured enough to assert himself but smart enough to realize that Louise is the right person to take the lead to get the answers the world needs. The relationship that develops with them is also authentic and develops organically. By working closely and trusting one another the bond that develops feels truthful and earned.
What I love most about the film is what I love about all great sci-fi. The themes that it introduces and the questions that its raises will have your mind racing long after the film ends. Arrival is the definition of a conversation film. After watching it you can’t help but discuss the concepts that it lays out. What is the nature of time? Is the journey worth the eventual pain? The importance of communication and acceptance. The film does what great science fiction is intended to do. It uses fantastical situations to discuss what is happening in society today but I would imagine also like most great science fiction will only continue to grow in relevancy. This film is in league with Blade Runner, Children of Men and yes even 2001: A Space Odyssey, it gives the viewer more than they bargained for and delights all the way through.