Too many films these days give away too much by way of plot in their trailers. So I decided to watch Arrival knowing as little as I possibly could about the film, and without having watched the trailer deliberately. All I’d read before going in is that the film’s title denoted the arrival of aliens on earth, and that Amy Adams is brought in to communicate with them. That much is about all you need to know, to help you decide if you want to watch the film.
You should, of course, want to watch it because it’s been directed by Denis Villeneuve, the very talented French-Canadian filmmaker who’s made smart thrillers like Prisoners and Sicario.
Arrival is what you’d traditionally describe as a sci-fi film, or an alien movie, although frankly it’s more than that. Much of the pleasure of this film lies in watching Amy Adams figure things out. She plays Dr Louise Banks, a top linguistics professor recruited by the US military after massive pebble-shaped spaceships show up mysteriously in different parts of the world. Louise and maths wiz Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are sent to the ship that’s docked in Montana, with the objective of establishing a dialogue with its other-worldly travelers.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to give away any spoilers. I’m not going to describe what the aliens look like, or why they’ve come. What I will tell you is that this film is the antithesis of the Independence Day type of films where aliens are immediately regarded as hostile and as enemies, and in which humans respond to their arrival by firing guns and blowing them up. That’s just lazy, and Denis Villeneuve is anything but a lazy filmmaker. Sure there are characters here that feel threatened and reach for their weapons, but Arrival is the kind of film that suggests empathy, patience, and grace might yield better results.
The film’s look and feel too is unlike your typical sci-fi blockbuster. It really unfolds like a drama about ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in this extraordinary scenario. There are moments of such beauty amidst nature, and repeated glimpses of a tragic back-story, revealed at a meditative pace and accompanied by such a haunting score (by Johan Johannsson), there are times you feel like you’re watching a Terrence Malick film.
It’s quite commendable that the screenplay (by Eric Heisserer), which conveys bold, complex ideas and offers new perspectives on time, communication, and memory, does so without resorting to jargon and without alienating the viewer. It’s genuinely accessible; this is not Christopher Nolan-style mind-bending stuff.
But to repeat what I already told you, the film’s greatest joy is in experiencing the awe and wonder of what is happening through Amy Adams and her sense of excitement and fear that plays out on the canvas that is her beautiful, expressive face. She is not only the heart and soul of this film, but also the eyes and ears of the viewer, as it is through her that we understand what the film is trying to say.
Clocking in at just under two hours, Arrival is that rare film that you don’t want to miss even a moment of. You literally don’t want to blink or look at your phone in the fear of missing out something small, something important. It’s an intelligent film and that’s not a bad thing.
Don’t read anything more about it. The joy of discovery is beyond everything else. I’m going with four out of five.