One of the running jokes in my friend group and at my school centers around how much I love Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. I guess I talked about it frequently when the film first came out in 2014, and it just sorta stuck as a running joke that we've all embraced. Hell, I was even asked to homecoming with an Interstellar joke last year, which was one of those moments where I truly realized how much of a nerd I am (in a good way). I've explained to people in the past that it's not even my favorite Nolan film (although it certainly was my top film in 2014), but it doesn't work- the joke has stuck and everybody just rolls with it. Nonetheless, I do love Interstellar quite a bit, and on my third theatrical viewing of it (okay, maybe I was a little obsessed), I had a profoundly surprising experience. I had seen the film twice and I was utterly bowled over by the scope, grandeur, and ambition of Nolan's vision. But on my third watch, I was suddenly overcome with emotion at multiple points in the film. It was at that moment that I realized Nolan had crafted a very tender film about the nature of love, the complexity of time, and the infinite vastness of our universe. As Hans Zimmer's score thunderously boomed through that IMAX theater, my eyes welled up with tears.
I feel like Denis Villeneuve watched Interstellar, said "Oh, you think THAT is emotional?" and then went off and made Arrival.
Villeneuve has risen to fame in recent years thanks to a series of intense, brainy thrillers that captured critical acclaim and plenty of attention from cinephiles. Prisoners was one of my favorite movies of 2013, and I was incredibly impressed by the white-knuckle thrills of Sicario as well. Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is one of my most anticipated films of 2017 and I have a feeling that he'll soon be on a shortlist of the best directors in Hollywood. His films are precise, cold, and gripping, shot beautifully and filled with dynamic performances. I expected more of the same from Arrival, Villeneuve's first foray into heady science fiction, so it was shocking to find such an emotional, poignant film. On the surface, Arrival certainly looks and feels like a Villeneuve film. It's slick, simple, and dominated by negative space, with some of the most jaw-dropping cinematography of the year. But if you dig a bit deeper, you'll find a film with a heart of gold, a genuinely sad and thoughtful meditation on the limitless nature of time, the inevitability of the future, and the importance of connection. Simply put, Arrival is a sci-fi masterpiece.
"There are days that define your story beyond your life," says Louise Banks (Amy Adams) during the first moments of Arrival, a line that immediately follows a devastating scene that sets the film's emotional track. One of those defining days for Louise, a world-renowned linguist, is the day that the aliens arrived on Earth. 12 disk-shaped objects suddenly appear around the world without warning one day, inciting a global panic and prompting the military to establish camps around the scene. Louise is one of the best translators in the world, so she's quickly approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher the language of the new visitors on Earth. After an icy first meeting, Weber accepts Louise's conditions and whisks her and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) off to Montana, the American location for the mysterious visitors.
When Louise and Ian arrive at the scene, they're put through a series of stressful, intimidating procedures to ensure that nothing goes wrong in the "show." After an astonishing sequence depicting first contact between the group of orange hazmat suit-clad scientists and the Heptapods (the name later given to the aliens), Louise, Ian, and Weber must come up with a game plan quickly. The governments of the world are growing uneasy, and there's a central concern that the Heptapods might not be here with good intentions. The ultimate question that Louise needs to ask of the aliens- "What is your purpose on Earth?" As conflict begins to arise between the various nations involved, with General Shang (Tzi Ma) in China preparing to start a global war, Louise and Ian find themselves in a race against time to discover the true reason for the sudden and mysterious appearance of the Heptapods on Earth.
Arrival is a film that upends predictability at every turn, constantly subverting the expectations of the audience. "I wanted more action," lamented one audience member at the end of my second viewing, a statement that seemingly contradicts the goal of the film. I knew going in that Arrival would be a cold, patient film, more concerned with the intracacies of global conflicts than big battle scenes, but I can't imagine that all audiences were as prepared as I was. With an alien invasion movie from a major studio like Paramount, there's good reason to expect a big blockbuster with large action setpieces. But Villeneuve is an incredibly smart filmmaker, and he uses those genre trappings to immerse you in an absorbing, gripping, and thoroughly realistic story about communication and humanity. Arrival never thrills or excites- it simply leaves you in a state of wonder and awe. That's such a brilliant subversion of alien invasion formula, and Villeneuve takes it one step further to a place that I definitely didn't expect.
If most audiences weren't prepared for a chilly, brainy, mostly action-less sci-fi thriller, I certainly wasn't prepared for Arrival to be so damn emotional. One of the unfortunate things about being a film blogger and being utterly obsessed with movies is that you rarely get taken by surprise by something. Sure, it happens once in a while. I certainly didn't expect to fall in love with Sing Street like I did earlier this year, to give a prime example. But for the most part, I go into a movie with a certain set of expectations, and I either get what I expected or I don't. There's little room for left turns or sudden surprises. I had heard from some people that Arrival was shockingly poignant and emotional, but I didn't really heed the warning, which is a good thing in retrospect. I was taken aback by the sheer power of this film, and not just the filmmaking prowess on display from Villeneuve. He has created not only the first alien invasion procedural, but a brilliant, bittersweet work of art.
The final ten minutes of Arrival are visual poetry unmatched by any film I've seen this year, which is not hyperbole or a drastic overstatement. Villeneuve makes an emotional statement here that is unlike anything I've seen from him in the past, and it reveals the filmmaker's thoughtful, tragic heart buried underneath the icy technique. Arrival establishes its human storyline in the first moments of the film, and throughout the rest of the story, we get hints and scenes that keep it in the back of our mind. But by the time that everything coalesces in the masterful third act, Villeneuve has taken you to such an unexpected place that your jaw might just hit the floor as tears well up in your eyes. He's grappling with some incredibly weighty, deeply philosophical themes here, and I truly admire his masterful achievement. Sure, this is a film about the need for global unity, the lack of human communication and understanding, and the messiness of conflict. But it's so much more than that.
Arrival is about the inevitability of time, the flaws of human existence, and the power of life to keep us going through tragedy. It is truly a film about the story of life (fun fact- original title of this film was Story of Your Life before test audiences forced Paramount and Villeneuve to change it) and all of the messiness that comes with it. Villeneuve confronts these themes throughout the entire film, but it all manifests in the final few minutes with a sequence as profound and heartbreaking as anything I've ever seen in a science fiction movie. Interstellar, The Martian, and Gravity all tackled themes about the perseverance of the human spirit and the limitations of time, but with Arrival, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer are firmly operating on a different planet. This movie rocked me to my core, and I was not able to stop thinking about it for days after seeing it. Arrival is a movie that hinges on some slightly unbelievable twists, which would be a problem if it wasn't a movie of such essential, reflective truth. I've been intentionally coy about the nature of the film's twists and turns, which is for the best. See this film and have your mind blown.
Villeneuve's emotional resolution is the end result of his brilliant, subtle filmmaking, which is sustained masterfully for nearly two hours. That cannot be commended enough and I think it's time for him to be mentioned as one of the best directors we have (any fears I had of him screwing up Blade Runner vanished after seeing this one). Villeneuve understands the power of a single shot or a solitary image better than any other filmmaker working today, and there are scenes in Arrival that will send viewers into stunned silence. There were moments in this film where I felt weightless in the theater, at the total mercy of the directorial wizardry on display. Villeneuve builds up to first contact with the aliens so exceptionally well, and he conveys so much with just an object or a movement or the total emptiness and silence of a room. There's a tracking shot that hovers over the site of the disk in Montana, and the way that the camera moves ever so slightly as Johann Johannsson's deeply affecting score reverberates in the background is nothing short of breathtaking. Villeneuve always surrounds himself with extremely talented individuals behind the camera, and this time out, his collaboration with Johannsson and cinematographer Bradford Young is simply dazzling.
Villeneuve also has brilliant talent in front of the camera. It's hard for me to imagine anybody but Amy Adams in this role, as this movie is firmly "The Amy Adams Show." Sure, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are pretty great as well, but Adams carries every scene of Arrival in one of the best performances of the year, a pensive, contemplative portrait of a strong, intelligent woman handed a monumental task. Louise Banks has the weight of humanity put on her shoulders, which would be nearly impossible for any ordinary person. Thankfully, Louise isn't ordinary. She can make the difficult choices that nobody else can, even if it comes at a fateful personal cost. Adams wears this pain and this love on her face in every scene, and I can't say enough positive things about how she pulled off such a complex role. This is a towering performance in every sense of the word, and even with all of Villeneuve's technical mastery and Heisserer's top-notch script, Arrival would be impossible without Amy Adams. I know that this is a tough year for the Best Actress category, but it's time for Adams to win her first Oscar. She's due.
The first time I saw Arrival, I was mesmerized, taken aback by the third act surprises and Villeneuve's exceptional direction. I knew it was special. The second time around cemented its status as one of the best movies of the year, a sci-fi masterpiece worthy of all the praise that is headed its way. On the surface, Arrival may seem like another methodical slow burn of a sci-fi movie, but in reality, this movie has so much more on its mind. It's one of those movies that will find a way into your brain, dominating your thoughts and maybe even changing your viewpoint on things. It's emotionally harrowing and deeply beautiful, a sci-fi film made with such cinematic artistry that it firmly deserves to be in the awards conversation this year. Led by the always terrific Amy Adams, Arrival is full of surprises, and it's further evidence that Denis Villeneuve is one of the best filmmakers around. Arrival is an astonishing, transcendent experience that is thought-provoking and heartbreaking, often at the same time. It's an incomparable, unforgettable cinematic achievement.
THE FINAL GRADE: A+ (10/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, IMDB, Screen Rant, Paramount