Arrival (2016)

In Montana, no one can hear you scream

I’ve always loved the English language idiom of referring to the vast expanse of space as “the heavens.” It suggests that the unknowable, black infinity that we humans can only pierce with machines built by teams of engineers and scientists is also a private lens to the divine.

This contradiction is at the heart of Arrival. In fact, as Denis Villeneuve’s career shifted from Canada to Hollywood, the struggle between internal faith and external fate became not only his central filmmaking theme but, in some cases, the very structure of his storytelling: Incendies, Prisoners, and Sicario are all, to varying degrees, stories of a lone person’s spiritual and physical resistance against a larger, unstoppable force (a civil war, an unsolvable kidnapping, and the War on Drugs, respectively). Arrival both digs in deeper on this conflict and explodes it outward: linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is in a tug-of-war with the space-time continuum itself.

And just like all of Villeneuve’s movies through his first eight, Arrival is a bit sloppy in the narrative details of its ideas. As the film’s conclusion approaches, the director attempts to modulate between two very different kinds of sci-fi: first, a hard, procedural first contact story about decoding alien symbols and uniting nations; and, second, a spiritual journey towards self-actualization, as if the aliens are Moses bringing tablets down from Mount Sinai for Louise personally. In the last few minutes, Villeneuve almost entirely abandons the former theme in favor of the latter.

While surveying reviews and querying friends, I’ve learned that there is astonishingly little consensus about just how well this works: Some viewers are bowled over by the emotionality of the conclusion, how personal the alien’s message becomes. Others find the pivot cheesy and unsatisfying: a movie all about puzzling out a secret meaning from esoteric but objective symbols is resolved with a deus ex stella, a bit of space magic. This is exactly the uneasy tension that Villeneuve cultivates, and I find it more compelling than ever here, albeit still clunky.

The story kicks off when a series of spaceships — shaped somewhere between an egg, a teardrop, and a fingernail; all thematically relevant symbols — appear across Earth. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguistics scholar, is recruited to try and decode the language of these seemingly non-violent aliens. When she arrives at the landing spot of one of the ships in Montana, the crew of soldiers and scientists — notably, all men — have had no luck extracting any meaningful communication from the alien creatures, but Louise manages to connect with them right away. She collaborates with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to turn obscure circular patterns into a recognizable language. Meanwhile, other nations are using different techniques to communicate with the aliens, but are all sharing their findings with a global network, and this collaboration results in the construction of a basic alien lexicon.

All of this is framed from Louise’s perspective, and we see in flashbacks that she is haunted by the grief of losing a child to some unnamed and incurable disease, perhaps cancer. She also divorces her unseen husband, a double whammy of recent loss that colors her alien investigations. The more time she spends with the aliens, the more she immerses herself in their language, and the more she dreams about her dying daughter and departed husband. When she brings up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — the supposition that our brain processes the universe through mechanics informed by the languages we communicate in — we can infer that something about decoding the aliens’ language has shifted her perspective and drawn her deeper into her own soul in some way she can’t quite put her finger on.

It’s immensely satisfying to watch Adams communicate with the aliens and work towards the breakthrough to the big question: why are they here? The film, in these scenes, offers the satisfaction of a good procedural story, the pleasing sequence of watching great detectives solve a complex problem.

It gets messier in the third act. This hard sci-fi thread of the story hits a wall as soon as the movie decides it cares more about Louise and her personal demons: Arrival provides inadequate closure on the grand, global puzzle it so meticulously sets up. And the result of this is the impression Villeneuve was baiting us a bit, that the entire first contact with aliens is ultimately about Louise processing her own grief rather than offering some broader implication for the human race. This doesn’t jibe with the scale of the story leading up to it. The film’s answer is ultimately that these aliens traveled lightyears to help Louise to make a couple of self-discoveries. This is a bit of a deflating ending.

The movie climaxes with Louise making a horizon-expanding revelation, a great sock-in-the-jaw twist with some real emotional heft to it. One friend said it made him “ugly cry,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, I still liked it. It’s a touching tribute to the overwhelming beauty of parenthood — the loss of self but the gaining of something more — that got me good. The twist ending also provides just enough bong-hit, whoa-dude reality bending to scratch the itch for mindfuckery I always get when I start watching sci-fi. It is, in the spirit of Villeneuve’s past surprise endings, tinged with sadness, but it’s also the first one since Maelstrom that argues that love and human connection are worth the suffering.

Adams offers an absolutely phenomenal performance as the lead, anchoring the emotional journey her character goes through and bringing the audience along for the highs and lows. Adams brings some really tremendous vulnerability. It’s an awards-worthy turn. It’s also the only real performance of note in Arrival — everyone else is just backdrop for Adams’ bravura work.

With no Roger Deakins this time around, Arrival isn’t the stunning masterpiece of cinematography that Sicario or even Prisoners are, but it’s easily Villeneuve’s third-best-looking film through his first eight: Bradford Young turns in a gauzy, gray, earthy look punctuated by the rich black of the aliens and the oranges of the hazmat suits. The lighting is delicate and immersive. Shadows frequently fill the frame, suggesting unease without ever verging into anything expressionistic or overly sharp.

Arrival is overflowing with terrific imagery and symbolism, too: The aliens (cheekily nicknamed Abbot and Costello) are squid-like creatures that resemble hands, as if they are from a parent, reaching down to cradle humanity. An ever-present and unexplained twittering bird in a cage evokes both a crying baby and a canary in a coal mine, the tension of humanity on the precipice of either oblivion or a new maturity.

Arrival is a bit too uneven in its narrative balance and sloppy in its plotting to rise into a masterpiece, but it’s Villeneuve’s best of his first eight films. It shows his improving storytelling instincts and a knack for sweeping sci-fi, a genre he has continued to explore in each of his films since.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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4 replies on “Arrival (2016)”

Pretty much spot-on; the procedural stuff is great, the emotional stuff is, as I recall, very dubious. Finally, with the next one, Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve’s English language filmography managed to tell a satisfyingly human story. With no humans, I guess that’s what was hanging him up.

This might be the best-shot film of Bradford Young’s career, which I sort of half-mean as a compliment, I guess. (Looking back, it sort of seems like Solo actually derailed his career. I can’t really say it’s undeserved, but it’s not like he’s the only person peddling absurd underlighting and aggressively-metallic color correction choices.)

Though in fairness I’ve never seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which you’d think I would’ve, as a soft David Lowery fan (though not so much a Malick Knock-off fan), but I do hear nice things about Young’s photography there.

I looked up Young’s credits while writing this review and was surprised how little work he’s done since Arrival, which he got an Oscar nomination for. Solo is his only wide release credit since this. He did one prestige mini-series and one limited release film, too. I found a recent Reddit thread wondering about him, and a few comments claimed he’s shifted to directing commercials and spending a lot of time at home in Baltimore with his kids.

Arrival had me scraping chunks of my brain off the rear wall of the auditorium when I saw it in 2016. Having said that, I owe it a rewatch: I’m curious how well it works knowing the twist ahead of time.

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