Twelve alien 'shells' arrive on Earth in various locations, seemingly at random. In an effort to make contact, a U.S. Army Colonel (Forrest Whitaker) recruits a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) and a leading mathematician to help with efforts for making first contact.
Denis Villeneuve's career, since transitioning to English-language productions, has been nothing short of remarkable. Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and later on, Blade Runner 2049. Between Sicario and the next Blade Runner sits Arrival, previously known as Story Of Your Life. What's made Villeneuve's films so fascinating and beautiful to watch is how he handles big themes and questions with an incredible amount of subtlety and deftness. Sicario was less about the Mexican Cartels and more about American interventionism. Prisoners, when you stripped away the layers, was about the coldness of human life. With Arrival, it asks a huge question of the audience - what would you do if you knew what would happen in your life from start to finish? Would you still want to live it?It's an incredibly hard question to grapple with and Arrival will stay with you for days after as you try to understand the nature both of the film and the question itself. How often does a film, with well-known names like Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, come along that has you asking deeply philosophical questions afterwards?
From the get-go, it's clear that Arrival is going to be a much more slower, more emotional experience than one might expect. We're shown scenes from Adams' character and her life and begin to understand why she lives a somewhat solitary experience, deeply focused on her work as a linguistics professor. There is no key moment when we see the aliens make landfall or destroy well-known landmarks. Instead, it's the sheer panic of it all that Adams - and, by proxy, us - experience that makes it all that more relatable and helps to understand what's at stake. When the film enters the alien shell with Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker in tow, the story begins to shift from a straightforward sci-fi / first contact story into something much, much deeper. As Adams' character tries to make the aliens understand our language, so do we begin to see that communication is such a fractious and discordant thing. The manner in which the aliens use to communicate with is incredibly visual, using pictograms at first, and then later, a process of dreaming within Adams' mind.
Adams' performance is stunning; she provides an emotional bedrock for the film and grounds it in the here and now. The frailties and inconsistencies in human life is pushed through her as she attempts to speak to the aliens, and it makes for a much more rewarding experience when they finally make contact. Renner, meanwhile, is pushed to a secondary role, but he provides a warmth and good humour that some of Villeneuve's work has lacked so far. Whitaker, together with Michael Stuhlbarg, represent the pragmatic side of it all - less concerned with discovery and more focused on how they can make contact faster so as to understand them and assess the threat. What's clear throughout the film is that there is no one singular antagonist as such. The enemy of the film is communication breakdown, being unable to understand one another on a linguistic level or on an emotional level. As Adams' character says, just because you can understand language doesn't mean you can communicate.
Denis Villeneuve does a fantastic job of making the process of understanding and learning the language seem interesting and visually stimulating to watch. The design of the aliens isn't necessarily sinister, but it is alien and that alone is enough to make them appear frightening. There are so many visual cues and flourishes to Arrival that you just know will picked and poured over for many years to come. While the film may not have the same unique colour palette that takes place in Sicario - that's down to Roger Deakins, of course - it almost fits as the film benefits from having a slightly subdued colour scheme. There are greys and indeterminate shadows, where everything is obscured - just like the language itself. Eric Heisserer's screenplay cleverly eschews world-building and demystifying the aliens, instead focusing on the emotional beats of the story and its narrative. At just under two hours, it's not necessarily a brisk pace, but it does move with a sense of purpose and it is possible that some aspects might have been wrapped up too easily for the sake of alacrity.
Still, Arrival is a superior and deeply intelligent film about the nature of life and communication that features a strong performance by Amy Adams and further confirms that Denis Villeneuve is one of the finest directors working today.