Surely enough, the sci-fi movie Arrival begins with the arrival of something. However, it isn’t armies of alien spaceships. Instead, the film begins with the birth of a baby girl. The girl’s mother, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), raises her, loves her and ultimately loses her to terminal illness. This opening unfolds similarly to the “Married Life” sequence in Pixar’s Up and is equally heart-wrenching. Although this sequence may appear to be only a backstory for Adams’ character, we come to learn that it is the most crucial thread in the film’s intricate and masterfully-crafted story.
The story follows Banks, a world-class linguist who advises the United States military after mysterious alien pods start arriving on Earth. She is tasked with finding a way to communicate with these alien creatures and understand their motivations. Her partner-in-crime is genial physicist Ian Donnelly, portrayed by Jeremy Renner. Director Denis Villeneuve is very sparing when it comes to facts, as evident in his previous three films, Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. He often disorients the audience from the very beginning and with each new fact creates a downward spiral of growing anxiety.
In Arrival, many of the film’s plot points may leave you unsatisfied. Why did aliens come to earth? Are they dangerous or benevolent, selfish or confused? Villeneuve and his screenwriter Eric Heisserer prefer to duck these questions. Midway through the film, as Doctor Banks is decoding logograms—the circle-shaped inkblots through which the aliens use to communicate—a lumpy voiceover explains that she has cracked them. All of a sudden, we see her holding a tablet with each blot attributed to an English word. How did she accomplish this? We’ll never know and quite frankly, we don’t need to.
In a year filled with unfocused, mediocre blockbusters, Arrival is a breath of fresh air. The film is beautifully constructed and evenly paced, flowing from scene to scene. It is driven not just by its plot but also by its emotional and thematic context. As the film progresses, its themes continue to grow and expand organically—from the dangers of alien invasion, to the complexity of language, all the way to one final message of free will and human choice. The film’s eventual plot twist works perfectly because of how integral it is to the architecture of the film’s overall structure and themes. Arrival uses its twist to an effect similar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Through editing, both films become a visceral experience of the manipulation of time, memory and human choice. By the time we reach the end of the film, it becomes clear why Villeneuve opened his film with the short life story of Banks’s daughter. It’s not a quick prologue but rather a thesis statement, guiding the film on its path before we even realize it.
That isn’t to say the film is all substance and no style. Arrival achieves the elusive balance between story and spectacle—a balance that Interstellar and The Martian, the two biggest science fiction films of the past three years, failed to accomplish. The first forty minutes of Arrival revel in the exhilaration of science fiction and mystery. Seeing Doctor Banks communicating and interacting with the aliens is one of the most captivating scenes of any film released in 2016. Bradford Young’s cinematography soars gracefully, gliding past breathtaking computer-generated images of alien ships. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s musical score is exquisitely delicate and haunting at the same time, enriching the film’s poignancy and atmosphere.
It would be a crime to not talk about Amy Adams’ star performance. In a time where strong female characters have become more and more prominent in films, Adams’ portrayal of Doctor Banks is a breath of fresh air. Her character is driven not by bitterness, psychopathy or love for a man but rather empathy, cleverness and most importantly, curiosity. As Banks stands in front of the glass panel separating her from the aliens, she stares like a wide-eyed moviegoer, eagerly waiting for the show to begin. It is at this moment that I remember why I go to the movies. It is for magical experiences like this. A+