There’s a scene—a very important one—toward the beginning of Arrival. It’s tame and doesn’t do much that you don’t already know. It’s the reveal that there are aliens descending upon Earth. But you don’t see that. Instead, the camera chooses to focus solely on Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
This is the thesis of the movie, and its presentation makes it all the more beautiful. Arrival is poetic, poignant, prescient, and so much more. From its cinematography to its subtly potent writing, it aims to accomplish the singular and tremendous goal of forwarding its themes of choice. It’s an extraordinarily heart-wrenching and heartwarming turn on the idea of choosing to simply be.
Be what? You choose joy over despair, resolution over resignation, rationality over fear. It lands exceptionally hard given the state of the world that we find ourselves in. Sure, primarily due to the outcome of the US presidential election, but this has been a long time coming. Based on the 1998 short “Story of Your Life” with the movie in development since before 2014, it pushes at all the inspiring parts of you that are uncomfortably—unbearably—close to the debilitating parts innate to living.
The fascinating part is that the plot itself tells the story of celebrated linguist Louise aiding the American government in deciphering the communications between humans and 12 interstellar alien monoliths that arrived suddenly and all at once across the planet. But that’s not what it’s about. It slowly but intensely unravels into a stunning conclusion, one that reducing it into a “twist” would be doing it a disservice for all its complexity and nuance.
It steps right over any expectation you could possibly carry into how this sort of story can end. And that’s good because for so much of it, the paranoia is strong. The opening act is so immensely strong that the fear of it falling apart by the credits is too palpable. And that unfortunate expectation seemingly plays into how the movie progresses.
As you keep up with Louise and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) coping with the nearly warmongering tactics represented by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), you are breathless. The most literally explosive part of the movie is preceded by 80 or so minutes of stone cold linguist analysis and yet it is the most brilliantly tense presentation of empathetic human drama you’ll see all year. It works because you are pushed and pulled by the same threads they are.
Are the aliens hostile? Do they want to help? What is their purpose? The ideas of scientific merit and morality upkeep and simply existing in a system directed by powers (and emotions) out of your control shove their way inside of you and force you to consider what if. What if everything. And none of it seems hopeful, though you so desperately want to find some piece of gold for all your digging. It’s a deliberate process of storytelling that rips you open to fully receive the ending.
Much of it is carried through a constant and unrelenting stream of visual metaphors delivered through beauty and juxtaposition. The point of focus mentioned in the beginning is just one simple example, a display of restraint that highlights the intellectualism of the movie. The first entry into one of the aliens’ ships is shot after shot of subtext. A hand leaving contact for open air. The terrestrial world below being left behind for something entirely unknown. An inversion of establishment.
Whether you’re looking for it or not, this thoughtfulness seeps inside of you. Your eyes hungrily—voraciously—devour this layer of latent information. Simply pay attention to the opening shot, a clean and sharp view from Louise muted beachfront home. It frames the horizon in the door while a world of flora and fauna are hinted through the rest of the bay windows. It, like most things in the movie, mean much more than you’d think, a subliminal message that comes into stark relief by the end.
Everything else is carried by the performances in the film, most notably Adams. She is undeniably, stupefyingly good in many roles, and this one is no exception. Her spectrum of emotions is supernatural, and her ability to express the minute differences in each notch along the way match that depth. Her morose joy, persistent throughout flashbacks, is something so few can pull off but is critical to the understanding of the eventual turn towards the end.
Her layers of debilitation and determination and defeat are impressive to say the least, every single bit of which is necessary for her character. She’s complex on the surface, let alone with a full understanding of what it all means and how it all plays out. The emotional transliteration of her comprehension of what it all means by the end is a shock of flavor you won’t ever have quite had before.
Admittedly, though, that turn isn’t totally sensical. It’s a gorgeous notion and deliberation on our perception of each other and the world at large, but it’s kind of, well, bonkers. So much so that if the movie wasn’t so gripping from the start to that point and so far beyond, it would be laughable. Granted, this, by the end, isn’t so much a sci-fi film as it is a meditation on the romanticism and intimidation of humanity, but it’s memorable even now.
Even in the face of that small concession, this is an impressive showing. Even having heard the praise it received from various film festivals, it exceeds expectations. Between the purposeful and affecting cinematography and the heady, provocative themes of the story and the Adams’ prodigious acting, Arrival is a treasure for the year and, most likely, many years to come.
Final Score: 9 out of 10