Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" Is Science Fiction Par Excellence

Eighty minutes into Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” the film doles out one of the most unexpected uses of subtitles in recent memory; a smart, intriguing alien picture is invaded by jet-black Futura typeface. For a moment it seems patently ridiculous, threatening to knock the whole film off its axis. As if the director of shining stars “Prisoners” and “Sicario” doesn’t know what he’s doing. Over the next thirty minutes, the movie’s pieces lock into place and the ultimately ocean-deep “Arrival” ascends to its rightful place next to “Under The Skin” and “Interstellar” as one of the premier extraterrestrial films of the century – daffy subtitle use and all.

In linguist Louise Banks, actress Amy Adams (“American Hustle”) finally finds the brawny headlining role she’s been looking for. The character wears a mask of language professor, consummate professional, and she is both of these things. But underneath she’s tortured by the death of her teenage daughter. Her grief has a habit of arriving abruptly, like a downpour on a sunny day, lending even the most mundane happenings a tinge of the unusual. This is most often reflected in the movie’s exquisite sound design. (It’s no coincidence that the screenplay shouts out tinnitus.) Louise’s headspace is frequently raided by the sound of pages being flipped or canaries chirping, signaling an incoming flashback. Her past is a boat anchor on her present, a well-drawn motif that turns out to be so much more.

But the the big-time spoilers are best left to the movie.

Our heroine is lecturing to a curiously vacant lecture hall when she gets the news: twelve flinty alien vessels have parked themselves over seemingly arbitrary terrestrial locations. A military colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up at Louise’s office with a simple but dangerous ask. He wants her expertise on the ground. Along with a physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise is off to the Montana landing site to attempt to communicate with the E.T.s.

The Quebec-shot scenery is breathtaking, but the team’s gravity-challenging entry into the alien spacecraft is a sight of its own, their hazmat suits cutting burnt orange figures against the ashen ship. Soon enough, two tentacled creatures reveal themselves (albeit in an ever billowing haze), and Louise and company make the first of many attempts to communicate with them. She begins by writing “human” on a white board. “From humble beginnings…”

What began as an intimate riff on Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” blooms into a hybrid of code cracking and international diplomacy, while managing to retain its initial smallness. The squid-like heptapods’ intentions remain a mystery that, despite progress on Louise’s part, begin to divide nations. With the clock ticking, Louise and Ian do their best to tame an overly aggressive government agent (Michael Stuhlbarg). Meanwhile, China threatens to strike.

Not only is this narrative high wire act timely and exciting, it’s a major step forward for screenwriter Eric Heisserer, whose previous works consisted of not one but two icily received remakes of horror classics: “The Thing” and “A Nightmare On Elm Street.” (His work on this year’s “Lights Out” was better received but came with its fair share of storytelling hiccups.) Heisserer adapted “Arrival” from 1998 novella Story Of Your Life and the results are magnificent – an almost perfect union between filmmaker and screenwriter, each in tune with the other’s intentions.

Villeneuve’s direction is across-the-board thrilling, particularly in the movie’s home stretch when it becomes all the more personal. Repeat viewings won’t just underline the gorgeous visuals. They’ll bring out the thematic layers and emotional acrobatics that can’t be so easily picked up on the first time around, all played to a beautiful crescendo by Adams and Renner. If Villeneuve’s penchant for striking visuals was already clear from his past work, his talent for directing his actors is really brought home here. Adams and Renner keep things grounded, while Whitaker does reliable work in a largely thankless role intended to offer some earthbound conflict.

The giant whooshing sound heard throughout act three might be the soundtrack, or it might be the sound of the movie going over some heads. No matter. Those willing to commit their hearts and minds for two hours, to think in the abstract, will be handsomely rewarded with a story told with power and sweep; they’ll be rewarded with the kind of uncommonly rich sci-fi that too often gets displaced by big-budget refuse.

The screenplay doesn’t exactly withstand logical scrutiny, but it doesn’t have to. Its ruminations on the nature of love and loss and the power of unity are more than enough to sustain it through a couple instances of narrative inanity. It all strikes the right balance between strange and elegant, coming through with one of the most thoughtful, emotionally backbreaking conclusions in the history of the genre. Movies are rarely so contemplative and compassionate, and the happily fatalistic “Arrival” is just that – so much better than we deserve.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 11, 2016
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)