**** out of ****
(elevated from ***1/2 after a 2nd viewing – 11.21.16)
(for brief strong language)
Released: November 11, 2016
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Arrival is a feature-length Rorschach test.
That’s particularly appropriate for a movie about language, communication, interpretation, and meaning. It’s also fitting that, in this story about first contact with an alien race, the aliens’ language symbols are Rorschach-styled circles. Even the shape itself seems to be an intentional metaphor to thematic undercurrents involving existence, linear perception, and the infinite.
If all that sounds like heady stuff, well, it is, and much more than audiences are likely to expect based on a mass appeal marketing campaign that favors a science fiction surface. But from the opening minutes – which play more like a Terrence Malick spiritual meditation on time, order, love, and grief – Arrival introspectively unfolds its plot with equal parts standard narrative and abstract impression.
It’s rare (and risky) to see a major Hollywood genre picture be so singularly driven by philosophical angst rather than action-packed thrills. Indeed, Arrival isn’t so much sci-fi as it is sci-phi. Critics love it, including myself (this kind of thing is squarely in my wistful wheelhouse), but for people waltzing in looking for an easy-to-digest entertainment it’ll be harder to access.
If there’s a helpful counter-balance to that contemplative patience, it’s the emotionally wrought journey Amy Adams takes as expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks. Recruited to decipher the seemingly impossible-to-translate alien communication, Louise is a mother carrying the pieces of her own brokenness. Key flashbacks to vital moments with her daughter inform the present urgency of Louise’s intergalactic task – in poignant, poetic ways – and motivate gasp-inducing gambles.
Also drawing us in, rather hypnotically, is director Denis Villeneuve’s rich, dense cinematic atmosphere. Arrival probably isn’t the movie you’re expecting it to be but it sure feels like the one you are. Through meticulous and lengthy slow-dolly shots, beautifully composed static frames, desaturated colors, compressed shadows, and an eerie audio soundscape, the ambience is ominous and palpable.
Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) builds tension through methodical, artful precision. The stakes of having twelve different alien monoliths throughout the world – with varying responses from governments, some more prone to attack than talk – certainly keeps suspense present, even when immediate conflict isn’t at the fore. This is effective and serious genre filmmaking, though far from the average popcorn variety.
Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker add perfectly metered contrasts to Adams’ Louise. Renner is another scientist on the team and Whitaker the military commander in charge of the effort. Renner compliments Adams’ serious melancholy with a charismatic fascination, and a bond grows, while Whitaker’s no-nonsense posture becomes another challenge Louise must broker (but also provides some dry comic relief).
It’s intriguing to have a movie that takes what would be, in effect, a side plot in most sci-fi blockbusters and put it front and center. This allows, too, for deeper examinations of characters, themes, ideas, and possibilities. Granted, Arrival’s cryptic nature will either fascinate or frustrate, but regardless of your experience (which will likely be a combination of the two) the final stretch should still pay off.
Bold decisions are made, which lead to surprising discoveries, but not in a gimmicky “twist” sort of way. Each revelation elicits a “Wow” followed by a “Wait, what?”, requiring you to work through progressive epiphanies. And even when you get to the end, this isn’t a movie you can walk out of with an immediate fixed opinion.
That, in itself, will cause many to reflexively dismiss it. Such a reaction, while understandable, would also be an unfortunate irony. This is, after all, a parable of how understanding each other necessitates work, and persistence.
The more it’s applied, a pro-life message emerges. I doubt that was the intent by Villeneuve (or even a thought that crossed his mind), and there’s certainly no political or preachy message here, but for those who hold heartfelt pro-life convictions, Arrival will resonate on a deeply spiritual level. Others who’ve struggled more broadly with where life has brought them, or wrestle with regret, will find meaningful encouragement and inspiration.
Both explicitly (as an allegory to immigration) and implicitly (as an allegory to ideological barriers), Arrival isn’t just about communication but survival, and the patience, empathy, and courage that requires. If we dare to embrace those virtues, and can surrender the false security of certainty, there’s healing and transcendence on the other side.