One of the most incredible films of recent memory comes in Denis Villenueve’s latest, a sullen project of perfect quality.
I’m just completely in awe of director Denis Villenueve. It’s understandable if you’re reading this review and have never heard that name before. However, it’ll no longer be acceptable if you haven’t by the time he begins work on his next film.
There was something special about the production and visual palette of 2013’s Prisoners, one of the darkest and most sodden films of this generation. It went largely unnoticed by the Academy, but there were rumblings of Jake Gyllenhaal getting snubbed in Supporting Actor and perhaps a bit of a push-back by people who like unconventional storytelling. (Prisoners was in my Top 5 that year). Then, we got a limited release of a film he actually directed before the aforementioned Prisoners with Enemy, a circular tale about infidelity, pressure of relationships, and a love for expressive spider imagery. There’s a whole sub-section of the internet that’s devoted to de-coding its themes and subtext. (Enemy was in my Top 5 in a packed 2014 of great films). Last year, Sicario spoke for itself. Not just because of the rather timely dialogue about border security and government-only international actors, but because of the further development of a personalized style that bleeds through nearly every film of his, ie: non-linear plotlines, brooding music, slow camera pans, expansive landscape shots and slow zooms on stationary objects, and a large-scale social commentary that in every movie manages to be restrained enough to be emotionally impactful, but powerful enough to create dialogue among audience members. What’s even more amazing is that he hasn’t had a consistent team around him to do the dirty work. Although Johann Johannsson is a repeat player for score (except not in Enemy), he’s changed director of photography multiple times, having the great Roger Deakins shoot two of his films, and now using the increasingly credible Bradford Young with Arrival. Oh, by the way, he got an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film nomination for Incendies in 2010, a film I (sadly) have not yet seen. This guy has a true vision about what great film-making is. I cannot say enough great things about his movies, and Arrival is the showcasing of even more improvement. It’s fantastic, and it’s the best movie of 2016 so far, by far.
I’ll describe the plot in a very basic form here, but I will put a spoilers paragraph after the end section to just talk about some of the things I loved about the choices made in the plot structure.
So, our protagonist is Dr. Louis Banks (Amy Adams), a professor with a doctorate in linguistics who lives alone, presumably after her marriage dissolved due to the death of her young daughter who/which we are introduced to in the introduction. She begins lecturing to a class she teaches and talks about how her life changed after “they arrived.” “They” are extraterrestrials, landing in twelve unique sites around the world with seemingly no rhyme or reason, their massive, curved space ships staring up at the sky. Every few hours, a door opens through the bottom of the shuttle, allowing humans in to try to communicate with the aliens, who are hidden behind a transparent wall inside the spaceship. The humans try to communicate with the aliens, but, let’s just say there’s a massive language barrier. So, the military, notably Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) and physicist Dr. Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), decide to put Louise on the case, trying to decipher the alien language to ask the big question we always want to ask the aliens: “why are you here?”
So, without truly spoiling anything, the first thing this film really gets right is the production. The score is fantastic, especially standing out both in the opening scene and in the very first scene of our team in a helicopter seeing the spacecraft up close for the first time. Villenueve, through Johannsson’s score, knows how to do eerie. The tension during a few scenes of this film is really, really impressive. Secondly, the cinematography is truly excellent. The film looks so crisp and secure, and because of how pristine the camera work is; it adds a certain level of legitimacy to the aliens scenes, because it makes the effects work sparingly, instead relying on the camera movement and practical effects to keep things looking crisp. The alien design is fine. It’s the feature with their hands and the way that they can write that is what makes them cool, but they look sorta similar to other alien films. It’s obvious, at times, that movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Interstellar played a big part in the drafting and editing of this film. I’m not sure that a scifi film this complex but also this emotional would be possible without Interstellar, but for all intensive purposes, this is a little bit better.
Amy Adams delivers a fabulous performance, supported nicely by two sturdy actors in Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner. Her pain, suffering, fear, and confusion about the entire scenario that she’s being put through is acted very nicely. She reacts very similar to how we all would entering a damn spaceship for the first time. She’s terrified.
The last thing I’ll say is that you should become familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in order to really grasp the film’s ideas about what the aliens are here for. It’s very different than any other alien invasion movie, and with excellent production, acting, storytelling, and everything else; Arrival is truly a perfect movie. It’s a real stand-out, and clearly the best film of 2016 so far.
Director: Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies, Enemy, Polytechnique)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma
RT Score: 93%
***SPOILERS (JUST SOME THOUGHTS)***
- She does warn us about the fact that she doesn’t believe in beginnings or endings anymore. Upon first viewing, you may be like “what?” when the intro occurs, but the way it introduces this with scenes of the daughter completely throws us off the trail of the real events of the film. Because she’s single and lives alone, we assume that she’s living after the death of her daughter, but in reality, things are a lot more complicated than that.
- The way that Louise tries to learn the language and the attempt of the film to have all of the countries work together is definitely a part of the more liberal, globalist machine that is Hollywood. But, Villenueve is an outsider, and his ideas about trying to make us into one community do hit home. The film’s perspective reaches far beyond just an alien invasion.
- The small details that the plot helps us understand, like her line about “I just found out why my husband left me,” are really intricate, but intimate enough to help us continue to care. It must’ve been so hard for her to know that her daughter was going to die and not tell her husband. There’s also the great scene of the Chinese general telling Louise about an important phone call they had in the South, because she had begun experiencing time differently than him. The wherewithal to be able to pick up on the pattern (probably by his own linguistic experts) shows that China deserves what my friend called “a nice golf clap” after the end of this film.
- The way the movie also begins to allow her having these flashbacks as she learns the language is really neat, the more that she learns, the more clearly she can use her past and future to dictate her present.
- That leads me to the language, it really is an excellent idea, wonderfully executed. Also, none of this, despite being a stretch, ever really feels unearned. It feels natural that she worked really hard to understand it. The aliens clearly do the same.
- The way that the Sapir-Whorf theorem fits into this film is that learning the alien language shifts her viewpoint of the world. Once she understands “The Universal Language,” she perceives time as they do, non-linear, and in a circle. Enemy‘s execution clearly allowed for the themes and the spider-like alien design to happen in this film, where Villanueve builds off of past success to make this thing work.