Of late, in face of the avalanche of superhero movies, the science fiction genre has been its sole genre competitor, as studios with the lack of a superhero catalogue churn out sci fi action extravaganzas in a bid that they might land a hit that would eventually become a franchise. With both genres bringing the sound and the fury, there has been a lack of truly poetic and personal science fiction tales for a while now. This is what makes Arrival not only a breath of fresh air, but an interesting look at the untapped potential of the science fiction genre.
After gigantic spaceships appear over the globe, Dr. Louise Banks and her team is tasked to translate and communicate with their mysterious alien visitors. With the governments of the world in panic, it is a race against time to find out the reason for the extra-terrestrials’ appearance, before humanity declares interstellar war on their intruders.
Denis Villeneuve is becoming one of modern cinema’s most intriguing directors. Throughout his career, Villeneuve constantly takes the path rarely, if ever chosen. Forging potentially cheap genre fare into original cinematic experiences, an unlikely artist with an even unlikelier body of work. Enemy (2013) remains one of the truly surreal cinematic experiences ever crafted, complete with a memorable (and shocking) final shot. In Sicario (2015), Villeneuve transforms a run and gun action piece into a thrilling journey through the dark heart of the Mexican drug war.
With Arrival, Villeneuve once again challenges the genre conventions that are set in stone, picking at it with precision until it forms an exquisitely carved sculpture. His stylistic signatures are still evident, the taut, slow burning but utterly rewarding puzzle of a narrative, the hauntingly tranquil photography. These are signatures and techniques that exist in his previous films but are now perfected.
The screenplay, like most of Villeneuve’s oeuvre, is jaw dropping in its minimalism, there is very little gone into the explanation or exposition. Everything is on a need to know basis. Every piece of dialogue serves a purpose. Every character matters until they stop functioning for the story, then they fade into the background organically. You won’t even know you missed it, and to be honest, as you watch the film, you don’t really care. All that matters is the main narrative story arc of Dr. Louise Banks and her personal struggles to communicate with the alien race. In terms of narrative structure, the film places veil over your assumptions of filmic narrative before pulling the carpet from under you with a masterful plot twist in the 3rd act. I won’t spoil it here but it is an impressive feat of cinematic storytelling. That is true movie magic.
Much of the credit goes to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who creates an intimate and cerebral journey in spite of the grandiosity of the events. This is supposed to be an alien invasion film but the focus is as not much on Dr. Banks interactions with the aliens as it is with her human colleagues and superiors. Banks is fighting our all too human tendencies of distrust, paranoia and our obsession with shooting first and asking questions later. In a film with the ultimate extra-terrestrial ‘other’, it is humanity who is put under the microscope and we do not come out looking pretty.
Villeneuve’s directorial fingerprints are all over this movie but it is most evident in the visuals. Sunrise and sunsets in twilight are Villeneuve’s trademarks but similar to his other films, Villeuve’s visual style dials down on the epic premise of alien visitation and infuses it with a poetic yet procedural sensibility. Giving the film a realistic but ethereal quality, it looks plausible enough to happen but at the same time, the film has a deliberate elegance from its shot composition to its production design to suggest a cinematic style. The scenes in the alien spaceship exemplifies this approach, the design and visual composition is minimal, it is just a long hall way with a glass window at the end of it but the novel use of smoke and silhouettes turns the entire scene into a portal to an interstellar unknown. Even the way the camera moves is hypnotic, with slow glacial pans and zooms serving to emphasize narrative elements and assist in generating an ethereal atmosphere for the narrative.
Aural and sound design wise, the use of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight certainly scores some points in the great music choice department but the rest of the score by is equally immersive with its use of sharp piercing strings, long, otherworldly drones and plodding, staccato beats. The music’s reverbing quality emphasizes what we see one screen, giving a claustrophobic aural world that keeps the viewer concentrated into the story arc. The sound design expands on the other-worldliness of the score with meaty groans of the aliens and echoes in the alien chamber. The aliens themselves don’t sound like movie aliens or little green men, instead the muscular sound design only serves to suggest that these creatures and their civilization can exist.
Villeneuve’s impressive direction of his actors cannot be understated, in lesser hands, Adams’ emotional arc may have fallen flat or seen as melodramatic, and the supporting characters’ performances might be sapped of motivation. With that said, this is Amy Adam’s show. No questions about it. With the responsibility of carrying the bulk of the film’s drama and emotion, Adams delivers, owning the role of Dr. Louise Banks in a moving, career defining performance. While the narrative lends Adams to be the dramatic and emotional playmaker, the rest of the cast are relegated to the background as walking plot devices. No film is perfect, as close as Arrival came to it, it is flawed in its myopic focus on Banks as a protagonist. Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker try their best to give interesting layers to their characters, the physicist Ian Donnelly and Colonel Weber respectively but they have little to work with or do besides advancing the plot, shoot out exposition or to serve as reaction fodder for Adams’ Banks. That said, they perform what little roles they have extremely well, and facilitate the protagonist’s dramatic arc.
What we are witnessing here is one of life’s rare opportunities. I wasn’t young enough to hear The Beatles play live or watch Francis Ford Coppola’s epic ‘The Godfather’ when it first premiered. I was still too young to appreciate the dominance of Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls. Not many of us can claim to have witnessed a person at his or her absolute prime. With Arrival, we are allowed the rarest glimpse of a director at the top of his game.
And what a game it is. Denis Villeneuve has made a rare kind of science fiction. Unlike most films of its genre, it is personal in its scope and cerebral in its execution. Through its highly original narrative, emotive performances and atmospheric cinematography and sound design, Arrival is among the best films of the year and one whose reputation will only grow with time.
5 out of 5
It is a rare pleasure to watch artists work at the peak of their powers. Captivating performances, mesmerizing visuals, original in its jaw-dropping narrative audacity, and powerful in its poetic display of emotion. From directing, to cinematography, to music to performances, this is what ‘bringing your A-game’ looks like.
If you like this, go watch:
Ex Machina- Another cerebral sci fi yarn, this time dealing with concept of artificial intelligence, its consequences and our less than desirable purposes for it.
Contact- It shares a similar premise to Arrival but told in a more traditional Hollywood narrative structure.
Solaris (1972)- Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece is a beautiful meditation of love, logic and reality. All set on a space station.
Interstellar- It is interesting to see how different the end product is when directors take on the same genre. While Villeneuve favours intimacy and thematic and genre subversion, Nolan’s stab at the science fiction genre is epic in scale and traditional in technique. No less cerebral though.
Sicario- Also directed by Denis Villeneuve. Emily Blunt plays a badass cop way in too deep in this taut, violent thriller set in the ongoing Mexican Drug War. Villeneuve’s penchant for marvellous twilight cinematography is on full display here, courtesy of Academy Award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins.
2001: A Space Odyssey- The most influential science fiction movie ever made. Stanley Kubrick takes us through time and space and across the universe.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/