“I used to think this was the beginning of your story.”
The emotional notes sounded after those words, in the opening sequence of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, aren’t an aberration – he returns to them, devastatingly, in the closing passages – but nor are they expected. The Sicario director has always been an innovative stylist, and there’s plenty of that on display in this alien visitor story (which incorporates elements of Contact, Solaris, Interstellar, and several others of your choice). But his tendency to approach his pictures as problems to be solved can translate into coldness, which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. That is, to put it mildly, not a concern here.
Arrival concerns Dr. Louise Banks (a superb Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who finds her morning class suspiciously empty, and its students suddenly distracted by vibrating phones. There has been a cataclysmic event. (These scenes are filled with echoes of 9/11, or, to use a more recent example, waking to discover your country has elected a white supremacist president.) Twelve alien crafts have appeared in various locations across the globe. Dr. Banks is brought in by an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker, doing a weird accent), along with a scientist (Jeremy Renner), to try and communicate with the life forms aboard them.
Eric Heisserer’s script (from the short story by Ted Chiang) takes its time in these opening scenes, methodically leading up to her first encounter with these life forms, detailing all the logistics and procedures with a patience that’s not just admirable, but borderline subversive in a major studio release. He understands that establishing communication between life forms would be a process, and processes take time. Yet the time that’s spent there also allows Villeneuve’s direction to inject soaring notes of awe and wonder (and a dash of dread), the kind of thing we got in Close Encounters and less with War of the Worlds or the Independence Day movies. You get that in not only how these scenes are framed, but the moments he allows between the actors; the expression of shared wonder between Adams and Renner after that first meeting is glorious.
But there’s background pressure, a ticking clock presented by the jittery powers-that-be at other sites, in settings less friendly. And that clock is accelerated by a kind of “phone call from inside the house,” prompted by radio paranoia and fringe elements that scream of Trumpism – not explicitly, but through undertones that have made their way into the American character. And yet this looming threat and the clock that ticks almost become diversionary tactics; we’re so busy following practical concerns that we don’t notice the machinery moving into place to wring our tears.
That phrase makes Arrival sound more manipulative than it is – it’s all organic. Memories and emotions are intermingled; present becomes past, and then future. (These elements also make for an uncommonly rich second-time viewing experience, aware of one’s previous assumptions and multiple reads on the material.) The big reveal, which I wouldn’t divulge for all the tea in China, is a moment of such deft storytelling ingenuity and skillful execution that I wanted to cheer at the sheer perfection of the moment, and the brilliant way Villeneuve and Heisserer orchestrate dialogue, acting, cutting, and scoring. And this prefigures the ending, a culmination of elements whose sheer emotional heft is downright staggering.
At the end of the day, Arrival is a movie about hope and humanity, about communication between races and cultures, about the true power of “the greater good.” It’s the kind of thing we always need to hear. It’s something we particularly need to hear this week.
Arrival is out tomorrow.