With spellbinding tableaus to satiate your visual appetite and a surprisingly soul wrenching emotional arc to challenge your heart and your intellect, Denis Villeneuve’s slice of cinematic gold Arrival is an immensely affecting movie that will appeal to big production loving sci-fi fans and intricate script demanding highbrows alike. Director Denis Villeneuve has cemented high expectations for his films over his past several releases. His most notable auteuristic trait is his devilishly perfect pacing.
The Devil in in The Details
Villeneuve boasted this technique in 2015’s Sicario, a deadly serious crime thriller that was so tightly wound that you nearly forget that what you’re watching is supposed to be an enjoyable experience. His less advertised Enemy the year before, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a convoluted dual role; however, gave audiences a hint at Villeneuve’s capability in the psychological mind-bender genre. Does one even need to mention the cinematic powerhouse that was Prisoners? Somehow Arrival plays out as both a blend of these styles and something altogether new. The creeping, bleak pacing, the subtle and highly effective acting, and the cerebral plot line are blended wonderfully in filmic equilibrium to the result of a unexpectedly genre-bending movie.
Visuals & Score
The visual element of Arrival is not the raison d’etre of the film (as it should never be), but it is nonetheless completely captivating. The enchanting scenes photographed in this movie are enough to entertain a visuals-junkie on their own, but the cinematography’s primary function is conveying the character’s states of minds: their wonderment, their apprehension, their terror, and eventually their pain. Villeneuve takes a break from the ever skillful Roger Deakins, who helmed the camera in both Prisoners and Sicario; but not to any loss in quality. Selma cinematographer Bradford Young takes the reigns to construct some seriously breathtaking shots, and with these shots arranged deliberately to a stormy score from Villeneuve’s frequent musical collaborator Johann Johannsson, the product is a cinematic aura so tight and austerely haunting that by the first half hour in you feel as if your jaws are about to snap and you wonder just how long you’ve been standing up. Villeneuve’s signature pacing is implemented here as an oozing crawl that somehow still manages to move along too quickly to fully comprehend the total sum of the scene’s parts.
This paradoxical pacing simulates the mental processes of the characters. An exemplary scene involves the first entrance of protagonists Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) into the alien craft. The passage of time is deathly realistic – not a second lost. A scaffold lift slowly rises into a cavity under the belly of the craft, an slot that opens for a specific allotted amount of time at scheduled hours. As we elevate into the craft with the characters, Earth gradually recedes beneath us and the cimmerian interior of the ship engulfs our senses. A hesitant jump heaves us across a gravity border, and our orientation is reversed. We rise and twist and loose our equilibrium along with the protagonists before we unhurriedly adjust to our new environment and surrender to the dreary magnificence of the unknown.
Johannsson’s score is fundamental here: the dismal theme creeps in almost unnoticed like a vague threat, then at the right visual cue we are blasted with powerful, ominous tones that the likes of Hans Zimmer and others only wish they could deliver: loud, thundering, mechanical synth that achieves legitimate emotional impact as opposed to rudimentary commercial “bwwwwaauuummm!”
Throughout the course of this scene we are sluggishly drug through the muck of anxious uncertainty; and by the conclusion of the episode we realize that we still have not fully grasped the totality of the situation. Just as the protagonists, we’ve been exposed to something wholly foreign in real time, and no matter how slow real time is, it’s never slow enough to fully comprehend something we’ve never had to comprehend before.
A Different Kind of Alien Film
Yet while the brilliant aptmosphering prevalent in Prisoners and Sicario is prominent throughout the film, it is not the sole component. The mind-bender element we got a unsatisfied taste of in Enemy is utilized here to great extent, which will undoubtedly come as a surprise to many viewers. Be warned Abrams fans, Scott fans, and especially Emmerich fans…this is not your conventional alien antagonist movie. There are no city-leveling beams of light, no disproportional big-headed grey aliens, no über-gallant Will Smith’s or rifle-sporting Segourny Weavers to be found in Arrival.
As much as this may challenge expectations, this film is about humans, about the human mind. The spectacular shots of the alien craft are incoincidentally framed around the splendor of Earth; the otherworldly beings and their chambers are depicted in contrast to human life. The focal conflict of Arrival exists not between humans and aliens, but within humanity and the human mind. The film examines our memories, our insecurities, and our choices as conscious beings.
The science-fictional arc, the extra-human plot twists that frame the story (which I must leave totally unmentioned) is related in the most human terms possible: love and loss. In a perfectly paced film every second is precious, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (after a string of uninspired contemporary horror flicks) doesn’t waste our precious time and attention with background data on the aliens. We don’t care where they came from, how they procreate, or what flora is like on planet Whatever because this sort of information is irrelevant to the introspective focus of the script. We do get a single, I’ll go out on a limb and use the word montagey, segment halfway through the film in which Renner’s character provides an outline of what they have learned about the nature of the aliens and their language. His narration is laid over several transitionary scenes spliced together to a wonderful little tune that condenses several weeks of time. While this segment does remove us from the dry pacing of the rest of the film, it does serve as a moment of intermission where we take our seats again and breathe for the first time in around an hour.
About The Actors
Amy Adams is as subtly poignant as always. The introductory scenes depict a series of her and her daughter who grows from infancy to teenagedom. One of these scenes has the potential to be the most cliché thing you’ve ever seen in a movie: a benevolent mother threatens her daughter with a playful “tickle monster,” and everyone is smiling and it’s just so beautiful and perfect that you’re sure something awful is about to happen, but you’ve seen this banality so many times before so who gives a crap. Adams wrecks that cliché. Her minimalistic acting bears an incredibly powerful effect. She creates multiple layers of emotion with just a silent face. The top layer, the visible facade, is that of the happy tickling mother, but we can see deep under this facade a subtle darkness.
The only noticeable “acting” is directed towards other characters, for the somber truth in Adams eyes seems infinitely real. This creeping feeling in the back of our minds that something nearly sinister is bothering her elevates a stereotypical mother-daughter scene into a highly complex emotional illustration. Adams demeanor is consistent for the length of the film: every moment of happiness, every moment of triumph, her affecting eyes knock us back down and let us know that “no, everything will not be okay.”
Perhaps the only disenchanting scene from Arrival was the introduction of Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly. This scene is comprised of a dialogue in which the script attempts a classic “Hey, here’s all my main character traits in a single conversation!” The effect is that his characterization comes off as secondary, and ultimately his
character does become more of a plot point than anything else. Renner’s performance is acceptable, and certainly gets the job done seeing as the script doesn’t demand much out of him.
Still, Forest Whitaker’s character doesn’t have much depth either but his performance in intoxicating nonetheless. Whitaker is one of the great actors today who can take a role with no real depth and still physically portray something enticing to watch. Plus who can resist that droopy eyelid?
To the sci-fi fanboy, check out Arrival if you want something new out of your favorite genre. And to the late night psych-thriller junkie, give Arrival a shot to experience something a little grander than you’re used to. This is a film that hits top marks on every level of filmmaking and is a must-see for all schools of serious moviegoers. Not just is Arrival top-notch in its own right, but is another great addition to Villeneuve’s filmography and raises the expectations even higher for his upcoming Blade Runner sequel.