High concept, high budget science-fiction films are, at best, a hit-and-miss genre. For every work of creative ingenuity like Interstellar or The Martian, there are at least a few major disappointments, ranging anywhere from decently mediocre (Elysium) to the pretty darn bad (The Matrix sequels) to the downright awful (After Earth). While the genre at its best can be a dazzling and incredibly imaginative experience, it can quickly devolve into a generic and uninspired mess that relies purely on CGI in a fleeting attempt to retain viewers’ attention.
Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s language-based sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, walks a thin tightrope between ambition and schlock but does so with great fearlessness and even greater precision. Based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella Story of Your Life, the film follows Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist called on by the U.S. government to communicate with extraterrestrial life which has recently made physical contact with Earth in an attempt to learn its intended purpose on the planet. Her story begins with a recounting of the short life and tragic death of her daughter, moves on with the first contact of the aliens (which, as Banks quips, is a label difficult to take seriously), and progresses as she meets scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner) and builds a communicative relationship with the extraterrestrial beings (referred to as heptapods in the film) in spite of an increasingly contentious — or, perhaps, alienating — international opinion regarding their presence.
Between the presence of the heptapods and Dr. Banks’ place in the plot — which is explained through the overused “She’s the only one for the job” trope — the initial concept behind the film does admittedly require a certain suspension of disbelief. Such an over-the-top premise logically should have clashed negatively with the straight-laced approach to the subject and come off as ridiculous and contrived, but Villeneuve’s mindful attention to detail and restrained creativity avoids that potential conflict. Even if much of the plot is not particularly grounded in reality, it is ultimately believable due to the great level of thought and detail put behind the concept — such as Banks’ previous working relationship with Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and the U.S. Military, the realistic handling of the situation’s political implications, the relatively simple and understated design of the heptapods and their technology, and so on.
Technically, Villeneuve combines a moderately high budget of $47 million with an incredibly creative and cerebral artistic approach, and as a result his film stuns in both a visual and audible sense. More impressively than simply that, though — being that with today’s technology, any big budget film can create some awesome looking effects — he uses the film’s vast technical achievements to further engross viewers in the story and its every small detail.
The best example of this occurs early on in the film with the initial presentation of the heptapods, the appearance of which is not explained at any prior point in the film. The scene plays out methodically, starting with an imposing shot of the spacecraft itself which towers far above any physical structure in sight. Villeneuve slowly reveals more of the ship, first up close on the outside where it is made of a rock-like black material, then inside (through a small opening) where the same material makes up the sturdy walls. Down a lengthy black hall which claustrophobically separates Banks, Donnelly, and the small explorative team from the solid Earth, they enter an isolated room, separated distinctly from the clouded, white extraterrestrial atmosphere by a rectangular sheet of glass. As they anticipate the arrival of the heptapods, the instrumental score — headed by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson — pounds in the background, lending the scene an unbearable level of eeriness and tension at the reveal of the creatures. Their arrival is greatly anticipated by our lead characters, but when it occurs it is brief and not nearly as significant as the build up. Whereas a lesser director may have just showed the heptapods in all their visually-striking glory with little emphasis on the suspense, Villeneuve uses the scene to establish viewer interest and pull them into the action that occurs in subsequent scenes.
While the film’s more scientific and technically-based side allowed for Villeneuve and his crew to display the full range of their talents, the emotionally-engaging backstory and its successes were, for the most part, a product of screenwriter Eric Heisserer and the acting range of the main cast. The plot, which contains a major twist in the last half-hour, unfolds meticulously, slowly revealing itself over the course of the almost two-hour runtime until all its cards are on the table and the result becomes apparent. The central cast, which consists of four characters — the resilient and intellectually-gifted Dr. Louise Banks, the scientifically-minded Ian Donnelly, the pragmatic Colonel Weber and the antagonistic Agent Halpern (played by Michael Stuhlbarg)— are all played accurately and effectively, but it is Amy Adams in the role of Dr. Banks that steals every scene of emotional depth. The difficult relationship between her and her daughter feels all too palpable when the film intermittently cuts to scenes involving the two, as does Banks’ pain following her tragically early death. Adams and Renner portray the relationship between Banks and Donnelly with a great deal of chemistry, and what Whitaker and Stuhlbarg’s characters lack in charm and natural humor those two make up for in spades.
Arrival is the rare science-fiction film, likely the first since Interstellar in 2014, to succeed in both captivating viewers and challenging them to think deeper about the subject at hand. Combining the ambition of a big-budget blockbuster and the passionate attention to detail of a small indie flick, it aims for the stars and in no way falls short.
Five stars (out of five).