Science Fiction's Latest Classic: 'Arrival'
“Arrival” is a science fiction drama based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life.” Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, the film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It is also possibly one of the best science fiction films to be made in the last decade.
When a dozen mysterious alien spacecraft land in locations across the world, linguist Louise Banks (Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Renner) are recruited by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to find out why the aliens are on Earth.
But “Arrival” is so much more than its high-minded science fiction premise, and talking any more about the plot threatens to ruin the experience of seeing it unfold with your own eyes and ears. Like the best science fiction stories, “Arrival’s” extraterrestrial premise is more a way to reflect and symbolize some very human themes and philosophical ideas. Like the best sci-fi movies, however, “Arrival” manages to also be a visual and audio treat that ties right back to its original premise.
The “science” part of the science fiction is just the right kind of heady and intellectual stuff that will spur audiences to think about how it applies to their own lives, without confusing them too much. There’s something intriguing to the science and art of learning a completely new language without any kind of starting point, in the hopes of establishing the barest semblance of communication between two different species. The problems posed by the aliens’ language and the solutions found by the characters are engrossing, satisfying and believable.
“Arrival” demonstrates Villeneuve’s strength for beautiful cinematography and perfect, slow-burn tension building like in some of his previous films (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”). The first time we meet the alien spacecraft in-person, and not on a TV or computer screen, it’s a long and unbroken shot sweeping majestically over the rolling fog and hills of the Montana plains. We are treated to a sense of awe and mystery with an underpinning of fearful curiosity.
Anything having to do with the aliens is given clean and even lighting, creating a sense of otherworldly comfort. But anything having to do with the people on the ground has harsh shadows and is frequently artfully out-of-focus, illustrating the difference between the chaotic business of humans on the ground and the strangely calm presence of the aliens.
Sound and music play important roles in establishing the mood of “Arrival” and reinforcing the themes of alien communication. It really puts the audience in the mindset of how important language and communication is to achieving anything, both on a personal level and on an international or interstellar level. The sound can mimic an unintelligible situation, such as speaking through headsets in a helicopter; or they can fool you into mistrusting what you see through purposeful audio “miscommunication.”
Nothing in “Arrival” is done without a purpose, and a third act turn makes maximum use of the very medium of film that puts everything else in the film into a new context, jettisoning “Arrival” into greater heights of science fiction storytelling.
If you are looking for a “thinking man’s” science fiction film that is still enjoyable to watch as a spectacle, “Arrival” is exactly the kind of movie you’ll want to see.