The science fiction genre has had its fair share of good standalone films in recent years. Ones like Ex Machina, Under the Skin, Moon and even the effects-heavy blockbuster Interstellar have told more intimate, character-driven stories. Following in this trend is Arrival, the new alien-invasion movie from the brilliant director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario).
Arrival begins with a quiet and tragic montage sequence, accompanied by a voiceover by its protagonist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Louise is a renowned linguist whose skills become necessary when a dozen unidentifiable flying objects arrive on Earth. Desperate to make contact with the aliens, the military recruits Louise for a special operations team.
From there, much of the story involves quiet scenes of Louise communicating with the aliens inside a confined shuttle, while the third act revolves around a major twist which I won’t spoil here.
While Villeneuve no doubt has a precise vision here, the three elements which carry the film are Adams’ stellar performance, the cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year), and the amazing score by Jóhann Jóhannson which I’m listening to as I write this review. There’s a lot I enjoyed about Arrival, but these three highlights were what made it really stand out.
Adams is without a doubt the focus of the film, as other characters such as a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) and the main military figure Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) have limited screen time and little interaction with her. Whereas Villeneuve’s previous films are relatively scarce with dialogue, here there’s hardly any. This to me is a strength though, as Adams is able to convey her character’s sympathy and determination without speaking much, while Villeneuve explores the thematic material through the film’s dense imagery.
Unlike Ridley Scott’s flashy and more lighthearted space adventure The Martian, Arrival is a film almost devoid of color that spends more time reflecting and asking questions than anything else. With each frame, Villeneuve and Young provide a dense and inexplicably rich aesthetic. The aliens are like octopus-shaped ghosts, mysterious but not terribly intimidating either. The film’s emphasis on communication is another of its greatest strengths.
Tying it all together is Jóhannsson’s score, which is on par with composers like Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newman. Emotionally driven and brilliantly juxtaposed with the images on screen, the music is likely to resonate with viewers as much as the film itself.
Now, the movie is far from flawless, particularly with the middle act being so stagnant and a bit of a slog. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer seems to be just killing time in between the exposition and the excellent finale. Nonetheless, I admire it for taking the time to develop Adams’ character before revealing the climactic twist.
Arrival is one of the more intimate mainstream science fiction films in recent years. While some prefer the more traditional blockbuster flare, I appreciated that Villeneuve took a unique approach to the aliens coming to Earth plotline. Plus, Jóhannsson’s score alone makes this one worth seeing.