Denis Villeneuve may be the true heir to Stanley Kubrick’s mantle. He has spent his past few years slowly building a solid resume of genre films that secretly explore something much deeper about humanity. Prisoners was great, and Sicario was even better. However, I think he’s truly outdone himself with his most recent work, Arrival. A film that uses the “first contact” trope as a way of exploring life, love, free will, humanity, and communication, Arrival serves as one of the most human and uplifting films of the year, even as it slaps you across the face while delivering that hug.
Dr. Louise Banks (a never-better Amy Adams) is one of the most renowned linguists in the world. One day, while teaching at her unnamed college, twelve alien ships land around the world. The creatures, known as Heptapods, speak in a series of signs and noises that are impossible for us to fully understand. As the Russians and the Chinese begin to panic at the notion of being incapable of understanding the visitors’ intentions, the threat of global warfare and conflict with the aliens is imminent. It is up to Banks and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find a way to reach common ground with the Heptapods and find out why specifically they’ve come here.
I’m going to do my best to avoid any spoilers for this film, because God, is it great to go in knowing nothing. It makes the film’s ending even more satisfying. However, even if you remove any of these themes from the film, it still stands well on its own. This isn’t your average film where aliens visit Earth. We aren’t watching them run amok like War of the Worlds or cuddle up with our children as the family pet like E.T. Instead, we witness one of the most realistic portrayals of how humanity would respond to an alien landing ever put on film. From the first reactions scene in a college classroom to the way the world governments panic and try to negotiate information from one another to the extended sequences where Louise slowly builds trust with the aliens, slowly exchanging words and ideas over several months in order to fully understand one another. The importance of understanding is the key to this film-yes, it’s the basic notion of literally being able to communicate, but this goes beyond that. It’s the study of being able to communicate with one another as a species; actually listening and understanding different cultures, languages and people, instead of resorting to warfare and bombing. It’s an important sentiment in a divided time: we need to focus on coming together instead of destroying ourselves, and Arrival is the film that best explores that concept.
And while we’re talking about this idea of communication being vital, let’s take a minute to talk about how refreshing of a character Louise is. Her speeches on the importance of linguistics and communication are important not just because they speak to an idea that any English, Linguistics or Psychologist could tell you (that the true nature of understanding isn’t math or science or war, it’s simply talking and engaging in dialogue), but because they come from such a smart, levelheaded woman. I’m not sure I’ve seen a character so intelligent and self-assured as Dr. Banks, and the fact that the character is a woman, a group mostly delegated to the supportive wife role in these types of films, makes this all the more remarkable. Amy Adams does some of her best work in the role, bringing a passion, wit, intelligence and range of emotions to the role that makes every moment land, from steely intelligence to a gut-wrenching empathy. It’s not only one of the best performances of the year, it might be one of the best performances of the decade.
Of course, none of this comes together without the steady hand of Villeneuve. There’s a rare gift in Hollywood where a director can make cold, calculated films that feel aesthetically perfect and yet filled with emotion. At his best, Kubrick was the master of this, even if his films sometimes lacked the emotions required to pull this off. Steven Spielberg tried to do this with A.I., but it ended up backfiring horrendously. Just recently, Christopher Nolan did his best to make such a film with Interstellar; however, while that film is quite astounding scientifically, it never quite nailed the balance of aesthetic and emotion, with some of the visual cues looking off or forced while emotionally we get Anne Hathaway’s horrendous “Love is a science” monologue. Unlike any of these directors, Villeneuve has nailed the style stone cold. He films each frame with his trademark coldness-bleak grays, a gentle-yet-understated score, gorgeous cinematography (Bradford Young deserves the Oscar for his tremendous work here), never overplaying the emotions in any given scene. And yet, just because he doesn’t bash you over the head emotionally doesn’t mean it’s not there-the opening scene alone is like a dagger to the heart, and every once in a while he’ll twist that knife before brutally ripping it out and disemboweling you with it. I recently discussed with a friend what you call it when a film feels so great and so warmhearted and yet is unbelievably heartwrenching. Whatever that term is, it’s the proper description for Arrival, and for what Villeneuve has accomplished here.
Other than Adams, Renner also gives a strong performance in the film. It’s a small role, but he brings a bit of heart and class to the film, and while I don’t know if I’ll ever buy him as a renowned mathematician, I can certainly buy him as a likable character, which means he served his purpose. And Michael Stuhlbarg is great in everything. My biggest issue with the film, however, is the performance of Forrest Whitaker as Army Colonel Weber. Whitaker certainly looks the part, but due to weird vocal choices, accents and line deliveries, half of his dialogue is incomprehensible, and he often looks oafish standing in front of the camera. I think Whitaker is a fine actor, and I still like the film, but he feels horribly miscast in a way I wouldn’t expect of a film of this caliber.
However, despite trepidations about certain performances, and a fear that some of the themes (particularly the math stuff) may be too complex for me, I still enjoyed this film immensely. From Eric Heisserer’s script to Villeneuve’s direction, from Young’s cinematography to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s impeccable score, from Joe Walker’s necessarily flawless editing to Adams’ performance, the film plays like a perfectly tuned orchestra. It is a thematically rich, aesthetically perfect looking film that shows us who we are, what we can be, and what we should be. And I appreciate it for that.