We have seen it all before. Aliens come down, humans fear them, the ones in charge are eager to press the button. Yet Denis Villeneuve never does anything straightforward. Instead, the director uses the classic format to tell a touching story that harnesses a universal and profound message. It’s not take me to your leader; more like take me to your lecturer.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a renowned linguist who’s enlisted by the US Army to help decipher the mysterious alien language used by the owners of strange spaceships that have parked up in selected points around the world. Shout out to Devon. Assisting her is physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), with both given fifteen-minute access to attempt to communicate with the aliens every eighteen hours. While Louise and Ian try to discover the purpose of the alien visitation, the world outside is less curious and more fearful of their appearance. Russia and China begin to view the extra-terrestrials as enemies which could have a profound and dangerous effect on the rest of the world.
Arrival is not so much a film about first contact but rather human contact. The extra-terrestrials, aka Heptapods, don’t receive as much screen time as you might expect. Instead, Villeneuve centres his film more on Louise’s emotional turmoil that, while having an intrinsic link to the events that are taking place around her, never overtake the film’s concentration on humanity. This isn’t to say the aliens are simply just a plot device. Villeneuve invokes a great deal of personality into his faceless extra-terrestrials, lovingly named Abbot and Costello, with minimal effort. One particular scene will incite more emotion from a giraffe-sized squid than you might expect possible.
Villeneuve does a masterful job of setting up the puzzle pieces in the first act, as he plants the seeds for the film’s perfectly-crafted twists and turns. Yet, the second act feels annoyingly clunky, with Renner’s voice over-exposition feeling lazy. The first act sets up such an interesting premise yet the director opts to cover the investigating in a brief and surprising montage. Although Villeneuve writes himself into a corner, the translation process is as arduous as it is intriguing but the director fails to conjure up a more interesting way to uncover the findings. Within a matter of minutes, Louise figures their language out no problem. It’s disappointing. It shares more with Villeneuve’s Enemy – in one particular scene it looks like a cut and paste copy – than any other of his back catalogue yet never manages to be as smart or precise. Enemy benefited from a slight narrative whereas the director is playing on a whole bigger canvas leaving it to feel like everything Christopher Nolan was aspiring to accomplish with Interstellar yet, it makes the same mistakes.
The film slowly morphs into a far more cerebral affair as Louise’s sessions with the extra-terrestrials begin to sink into her psyche. The twists and turns that wind their way to the third act will divide some, and confuse most, but it uncovers the film’s true heart and the emotional core that runs throughout is exposed with profound effect. These feelings of warm messages of love juxtapose with the dark visuals the director conjures up.
Arrival is riddled with grey-soaked visuals that somehow manage to be stunning, thanks to A Most Violent Year cinematographer, Bradford Young, who does a brilliant job capturing the landscape in its vast beauty much in the same way as the captured landscape of 1970’s New York. Villeneuve’s film comes into its own during the the contact moments between Louise and Ian and Abbott and Costello. The dizzying visuals coupled with the grating score makes for an enjoyably uncomfortable feeling yet at times it leaves the film feeling cold and apathetic despite the overarching message of kindness. It’s a bizarre blend that never works side by side.
It is all anchored by a calm and collected performance by Amy Adams, who has quickly taken the mantle as the best actress currently working in America today. The camera never drifts far from Adams’ perfectly emotive face – the shot of her first meeting the aliens is as stunning as the extraterrestrials themselves. Renner has a little more to do than he does normally but he struggles to keep up with Adams’ note perfect performance and it doesn’t help his character who is never as interesting as his female peer.
For all its perfect moments, and there are many, there is never enough to make Arrival Villeneuve’s masterpiece. Its sloppy second act spoils proceedings, never ruining the emotional pay off of the third act but doing enough to tarnish the final product. The director’s broader canvas is both a blessing and a curse. While it allows for him to explore bigger ideas, it causes the narrative to lose the precision it needs. It’s a worthwhile, important journey to take but it’s never quite as masterfully crafted as this reviewer was hoping.