Arrival (2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Heisserer

Every once in a while, a few times a year if I’m lucky, a film comes along which is so moving and original and astounding, that it seems hard to write about at first. A film so full of grand ideas, so full of subtle and beautiful execution, a film so much the result of collaboration between incredible artists who have a singular vision and understanding of the emotions, ideas, and feelings they wish to communicate. It’s a rare occasion, but when it happens, it’s an incredible experience. An experience which is exhausting, but the kind which results in a sort of mental tired that is refreshing. Each year, hundreds of movies are released, some of the good, some of them bad, but the question I ask myself every year is whether the bad ones are worth it. Is it worth it to watch 100 movies to find the one or two that are truly masterpieces?

One day, when linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) steps into her almost empty classroom, student’s phone begin rudely going off. At the request of one of the students, she turns on the television to find the world has changed. Twelve alien spaceships have descended upon Earth in various places. After struggling to understand the event, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office, asking for her help. Tentative at first, Louise decides to join Weber and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) on an impossible mission, to communicate with the aliens, to determine their purpose. =Louise must find a way to find common ground with the visitors, to understand them, to get them to understand humans, all the while the world panics, fearing the worst from these unknown visitors.

Denis Villeneuve has impressed with past efforts, such as Incendies, or 2015’s Sicario, but never has he reached quite as high, or ambitiously, as Arrival. It is truly, in every way possible, a tremendous achievement. What amazes me about a film like Arrival is its ability to be this vessel for huge, hefty, extremely deep ideas and questions, questions about existence, humanity, love and pain, the universe, time and interconnectivity, while also managing to appear so very sparse and small, subtle and personal. Striking this balance is no easy task, and yet Arrival‘s greatest strength is in its ability to communicate these themes so effortlessly. Everything falls into place right where it should and that is so rare in movies, marking this is as something that is truly special. For a sci-fi film with a scope as large as this to be as relatively quiet, lacking in large bombastic action or violence, and focused in on the kind of reflection and peaceful discovery is endlessly refreshing.

It could be brought up that the sci-fi genre was mostly generated out of the Cold War, the race to space between the United States and Russia, two quietly warring nations (there are of course exceptions). But as a result most of the sci-fi ever made revolves around conflict, this idea of us versus them, humanity versus the aliens. But, wouldn’t it make sense for space discovery and alien interaction to be equally likely to be peaceful. In a time in the world where globalization is more prominent than ever, when communication is so fast (and also volatile and terse at times), Arrival becomes an important treatise on nations working together, on the unity of humanity, and the importance of how everything we do effects everybody else.

And yet these themes and ideas are quiet streams which run underneath the emotional core of the film which is the story of Louise. Amy Adams once again shines to remind all of us that she is one of the best actors of her generation. The film is a technical marvel, with beautiful cinematography and a heartbreaking score by Johann Johnnsson. The main emotional theme of the film, actually composed by Max Richter, is a perfect reflection of the symphonic nature of the film. There are so many elements, so many themes and moments of reflection, things to think about, and yet the finished product becomes this symphony which melds everything together into what appears to be a relatively simple package on the surface, but as you unpack all of the data, all of the small pieces that make up the greater whole, it is easy to see the complexity of it all, its greatness. Arrival is the type of movie that makes it worth waiting to find. It’s the type of movie that is 1 out of 100.

**** – Masterpiece

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