Mistakes were made.
Days later, that’s all I can think after seeing Arrival. If I had finagled things a bit better, I could have watched the film in September during the Toronto International Film Festival. But against my better judgment, I skipped it and decided to wait until it was released this past weekend to the general public.
And even now, on my second and third pass at writing and editing this column, I am left speechless and in total awe of fellow Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction masterpiece. From the moment the film starts and Amy Adams begins talking, I knew I was in the hands of a master.
Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) is oblivious entering her nearly empty university classroom, ignoring the multitude of students gathering around televisions and computers. Even the few people in her class seem to be distracted by text messages and videos. And then she turns on the news and discovers the truth – twelve alien ships have landed across the world and no one knows why. Days later, she is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help communicate and understand the reason the aliens have arrived, before the US and other nations escalate matters into their own hands.
Arrival is a high concept film, even by sci-fi standards, but it is one that is more thoughtful and human than we typically get from an alien invasion movie. The film stays focused on language and communication, between Louise, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the aliens, and between the military agents and rival nations all trying to do the same thing. There are a few moments that play out as stereotypically as you might imagine with the prototypical characters who have zero understanding of the greater picture. But there are others that twist, turn and play out entirely different – toying with all of our preconceptions. Even the way the film manipulates and perverts the concept of time is done in an interesting way, intentionally revisiting the same information multiple times but having each one evoke a different response.
What especially impressed me about Arrival was how little Villeneuve relied on special effects. The alien ships are minimalist at best, and about as opposite from intricate as you can get. We are only given fleeting glimpses at the invading aliens, watching them behind a glass barrier shrouded by fog or through monitors. But these elements never make the film seem cheaper – they only deepen the human connection that runs throughout its nearly two hour running time. Also of note is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s exquisite score that alternates between being epic and genuinely alien in nature. It gives each scene a greater sense of purpose, and adds greatly to how moving and personal the film is.
While I enjoyed the supporting cast of Renner, Whitaker and the soon-to-be-typecast Michael Stuhlbarg (who is just as much of a dick here as he was in Doctor Strange), the film’s not so-secret weapon is Adams. She is positively translucent as Louise, making each scene better just by being present. We see nearly all of the action through her eyes and narration, and we feel each one of the successes and shocks through her. Adams is a force of nature, and Arrival feels all the more real and compelling because she is not playing a typical world savior here. She is an every woman (albeit exceptionally educated) who is selected to be a part of something extraordinary. Adams helps ground the film in reality and helps amp up the humanity of the picture, all while battling haunted memories that so many of us either cherish or fear.
While I lamented weeks ago about how crappy this year’s crop of new movies have been, I think there is an irony in admitting that I had a visceral response to all three of the films Adams starred in this year –the total mess we call Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, next week’s magnificent Nocturnal Animals and now, Arrival. What that says about me, I am not sure. But it says a lot about Adams’ career choices and the magnificent diversity in her body of work.
And I feel like dissecting Arrival any further would ruin what a miraculously fulfilling experience it is to watch. I have read some massively disappointed reactions to the film, although I am not sure what they could have possibly been expecting (but then, I stayed away from all of the trailers and in-depth analyses to avoid having sky high expectations). And I have read other reactions from people who feel like its singular message of greater and more united communication coming so soon after the US Election is almost too perfect. And I have read even more commentaries proclaiming the film to be one of the best of the year, if not the single best film with less than two months to go before 2017.
The beauty of Arrival is that it can be all of these things and more. Villeneuve, screenwriter Eric Heisserer and original story writer Ted Chiang, along with the immense cast and crew, have crafted one of the most unique films of the year while also qualifying as one of the most human. Arrival is incredible in every sense of the word and is a film you should instantly run out and watch as soon as you possibly can. Ignoring this future genre classic is simply not an option.
I just hope Villeneuve can deliver again with Blade Runner 2049 next fall.
No pressure or anything, Denis.
Recommendation of the Week: Finding Dory, Disney•Pixar’s latest animated triumph that hits Blu-ray today. It is just as much of a hilariously cute and wild adventure as Finding Nemo was back in 2003, but it packs in more heart with its emphasis on mental illness. The animation is spectacularly detailed, and the voicework is impeccable whether it’s from returning players like Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks, or new cast members like Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Kaitlin Olson, Diane Keaton and Idris Elba, just to name a few. With this film, their 17th since revolutionizing the animated film industry in 1995, Pixar continues to demonstrate its maturity, range and ability to find the sweet spot where they are able to say plenty to kids and plenty more to adults. I just wonder why the filmmakers thought it was not okay to poke fun at what’s wrong with Dory, but felt it appropriate to make other developmentally different animals be the butt of so many jokes.