written by Eric Heisserer
based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
directed by Denis Villeneuve
Movies can sneak up on you. They wait for the very last moment to show their hands, and by this I don’t mean they throw a twist ending unto the audience. Sure, twist endings can be cool, but what I’m talking about, and which I’ve touched upon elsewhere, is when a story you think you’ve got figured out suddenly reveals itself to be about something else, and not what you originally thought it was. And while some films that do this may make you feel cheated, others achieve that most difficult of artistic endeavors: Resonating emotionally in a believable manner.
Arrival sneaks up on you. On the surface, it’s a science fiction film about twelve alien ships suddenly appearing all over Earth. Who are the visitors? Do they pose a threat? Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist tasked by the military to figure out a way to speak with the extraterrestrials in the vessel floating over Montana. While Louise and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) set out to find answers, the nations of the world get increasingly restless, and China readies a nuclear attack. It all may sound like just another Independence Day (1996), but thankfully it isn’t. In fact, Arrival is nowhere close to a Hollywood film, despite having some fairly known stars and amazing special effects. No, this is more of an indie drama in which time, love, and loss are inexorably interconnected, and where communication plays an important part in the survival of the human (and alien) species.
To say more would be to take away from the experience. Suffice it to say that Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has slowly been subverting genres since arriving in the United States, first with Prisoners (2013), in which he toyed with audience expectations regarding revenge, and then with Sicario (2015), with its questioning stance on the War on Drugs. With Arrival, Villeneuve adds emotion to the intellect, even choosing Max Richter’s transfixing On the Nature of Daylight (2004) as a music bookend. It works as well as it did in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), transforming a good film into a memorable one.
Arrival is the movie Interstellar (2014) so desperately wanted to be, with its similar thematic concerns regarding the universe and our place in it. Yet it avoids the ridiculous exposition for something a little more ambiguous and real. With it, Villeneuve has become a director to watch – I am certainly looking forward to his next film, the sequel to the highly influential Blade Runner (1982). Maybe he’ll make me believe that androids do dream with electric sheep.
Carlos I. Cuevas