Director: Denis Villeneuve
Date: 23 April 2017
jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2
An alien arrival movie that morphs into one character's existential journey, Arrival announces Denis Villeneuve's palpable talent as a filmmaker as well as the joys of the rug being pulled out from under the audience. In its more cerebral and emotional ways, the film recalls, in moments, both Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. After some slowing zooming in opening shots of an empty house with hauting score by Johann Johannsson, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a Linguistics professor must join an Army force led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who are tasked with responding to one of twelve alien spacecraft that are hovering over different parts of the globe. Gigantic egg-like structures, these spacecraft offer chances for communication with life beyond our own, and Banks joins physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in approaching and trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. And then, the movie becomes almost a silent film for many minutes with the entrance into the floating egg being a tangible concern, the strange circulations of its gravity, and the logistics of movement within its spaces. Villaneuve lets us reorient ourselves gradually before showing the next reveal, a mixture of both the beautiful and the terrifying, as the communication goes from abstract to shockingly face-to-face.
And the movie meanders in time with Louise considering her relationship with her daughter in the midst of the world-altering developments. And in a way, the arrival of these extraterrestrials might not be the biggest thing that Louise has on her mind, though her scholarly acumen and moves pay off in brilliant and marvelous ways. The film constantly surprised me in where it was going, and I found multiple reveals to be well-executed and upsetting in the best of ways. Villaneuve moves his camera beautifully with cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot Selma and was appropriately Academy Award nominated for his stunning work here), with lots of slow zooming in to increase tension and plenty of extreme wide shots that show the breadth of the landscapes in relief against the giant eggs. I cannot put into words the effectiveness of Johannsson's score; the Icelandic composer behind The Theory of Everything and Sicario has crafted a sublimely beautiful soundscape to accompany such a strange film. I found Amy Adams to be stellar in a performance that for much of the film is wordless or without the big moments that one would expect. And Renner and Whitaker are both wonderful in the supporting cast as well.
With Arrival coming on the heels of the more messy but compelling Sicario and even the flawed Prisoners, Villaneuve has announced himself as a major talent here, especially with the boldness of the last thirty minutes of the film. In a film that could have easily been two and a half to three hours (I'm looking at you, Interstellar, which I still enjoyed), Villaneuve takes less than two hours to concisely tell a moving story with gravity. The unconventional final sequences reveal a filmmaker filled to the brim with confidence, elan, and daring. I am haunted by Arrival and its hypnotic power; I feel that I will always want to return to its world and fall under its spell and its idea that we are ultimately not waiting for an external conquering or revelation. Instead, the epiphany will and must come from within. We announce and create our own arrivals.