Like the establishing scenes of “Up,” the opening of “Arrival” tells a gorgeous, moving and abruptly devastating story of love and loss. I won’t describe any of it, let alone hint at the big twists director Denis Villeneuve’s film slowly unveils. Instead, here’s what the teaser trailer helpfully divulges: Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a celebrated linguist, is hand-picked by a military operative (Forest Whitaker) to oversee a top secret mission. Gigantic alien spacecrafts are spotted all over Earth, hovering above the ground. Louise and a celebrated scientist (Jeremy Renner) have been chosen to make first contact and figure out why the aliens have decided to communicate in the first place.
Villeneuve’s film has ideas rich enough to swirl around your mind for days. Everything here is a risk, from the look of the aliens, the film’s overall design (with its emphasis on textures, wide spaces and patterns within communication) and the stillness of the deadly serious tone.
Adams’ quiet, internal work is another strong, spotless performance that ranks among her best. Renner has rarely been so relaxed on screen and exudes warmth and gentle charisma. Whitaker is always good, though it’s fun to note what a veteran he is in this genre. If “Arrival” is his A-list, respectable alien movie, then “Species,’ which he co-starred in, was his B-movie, T&A, slash ‘n’ bash alien sleaze fest. He also played an alien in “Battlefield: Earth,” one of the worst sci-fi movies ever made. Aside from starring in a musical, Whitaker has been in every kind of movie you can think of. Also worthy of note is the music by Johann Johannsson; it’s so unique, I happily sat through the end credits to hear it again.
Here’s a sci-fi epic with a conclusion that is earthbound and deeply sentimental. I continue to defend the much-disliked endings of “Interstellar” and “Contact,” which many have derided for being too emotional. It should come as no surprise that, every time we look to the cosmos and gaze into the possibilities of the universe, our conclusions tend to be inward and intimate. After all, the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s grand, definitive cinematic statement on mankind’s place in the universe is the shot of a baby. However, while I liked “Arrival” and was surprised by its third act reveal, the closing moments feel too tidy and straight forward.
I wanted the movie to blow my mind and it stopped short of that. There’s a thinly defined subplot involving a saboteur that winds up going nowhere (in the same way the Jake Busey subplot in “Contact” was needless). The vision of nationwide panic is effective stateside but the socio-political angle isn’t as well defined and borders on cartoonish. For better or worse, this tale of a woman learning to communicate with alien life forms is really a template to shape a mother/daughter story.
Recalling that “Interstellar” and “Contact” were a daughter/father stories above all else makes this fit alongside those superior works. Also, the concluding moments of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” depicted a family man making the ultimate decision of which group of children he wanted to spend the rest of his human existence with. These movies continue the trend of science fiction tales asking us about the enormous notion of family and what our purpose is.
As I write this, Villeneuve is filming the long awaited “Blade Runner 2049,” with Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. Every film he’s made demonstrates a masterful control of image and tone, making him a perfect filmmaker to continue Ridley Scott’s vision. In odd ways, “Arrival” is very similar to Villeneuve’s “Enemy.” Like that movie, “Arrival” requires multiple viewings and is most peculiar, rewarding and exquisitely made.
-originally published in Maui Time Weekly