“Arrival” is not your typical sci-fi/alien movie and, in many ways, is not what mainstream audiences have come to expect. There’s little in the way of pyrotechnics, and no violent human or alien deaths. The dialogue is spare and precise, and it contains an above-average level of math and linguistics jargon. A full third of the film has nothing whatsoever to do with sci-fi in any context, and at least half of the story could rightfully be considered a mystery thriller.
The Easton FactorWithout warning and seemingly without reason, 12 identical skyscraper-length spacecraft, shaped like halved eggs, standing upright and colored charcoal grey, arrive on Earth and hover just feet above the surface in locations with infrequent lightning that also happen to be places where an unnamed Sheena Easton song topped the charts in the ‘80s. Whether or not you find that last tidbit funny or ironic will likely be a bellwether of your overall opinion of the movie.
An internationally recognized linguistics expert, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is called on by Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to go to Montana, where one of the ships is parked, in an effort to figure out a way to communicate with the inhabitants of the ship. Also present is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), whose opinions often clash with Banks, the principal reason why Weber included both of them.
Setting the mood early on and sticking with it, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heiserrer divvy out the narrative into small exacting portions, with one notable exception. Preceding the alien arrival is an ultra-economical passage where single mother Louise gives birth to her daughter Hannah, enjoys good times and bad, and ultimately watches her die. This all takes place in the space of the opening credits and presents a stark contrast to the remainder.
The time spent in the build-up to, and interaction with, the aliens will frustrate many as it is done in multiple visits with next to no action unless you consider something written on an erasable ink board exciting. Roughly 45 minutes of the movie takes place inside the ship with Ms. Adams providing almost all of the sparse dialogue yet conveying volumes of emotion with her azure orbs and inquisitive, childlike facial expressions.
Never raising her delivery above “indoor voice” levels, Ms. Adams is charged with playing a character who keeps her cards close to the vest, and avoids emotional extremes, yet still must display urgency, pain, hope, optimism, and unflappable determination. Although Ms. Adams failed to secure an Academy Award nomination for her work, she did receive the far more prestigious National Board of Review Award.
In the Company of MastersWith “Arrival,” Mr. Villeneuve has hit full stride with a film that contains elements of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg, via influence rather than imitation or tacky aping. He is his own man, yet recognizes the genius that preceded his creative journey.
Mr. Villeneuve was obviously doing something right. Before principal photography was even finished on “Arrival,” producer Ridley Scott hired him to direct the long-awaited sequel to “Blade Runner” (“Blade Runner 2049”), which many (myself included) felt was better than the first installment.
Upon release, bloggers and Internet trolls labeled “Arrival” as recycled “Interstellar,” which was completely inaccurate. If comparisons must be drawn, it should be with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” John Carpenter’s “Starman” and the unfairly maligned “Contact” by Robert Zemeckis, another film tying together language and mathematics.
“Arrival” reaches its emotional and narrative crescendo in the final 15 minutes, when all of the loose ends are tied together, and what might have first appeared to be fuzzy becomes crystal clear.