I had a difficult time reviewing Prisoners and Sicario. Both perfectly good movies, though Prisoners hasn’t stuck with me the way some other films have — hell, it only got an honorable mention on my year-end list that year. As for Sicario, that film didn’t quite connect with me the way it did with other critics, and for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. But after so many months of looking back, I think I’ve finally figured it out.
For me, Denis Villeneuve was in the same class as Roman Polanski and David Ayer. I respect all three for their phenomenal talent as filmmakers, but I utterly despise what they do with that talent. With Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve showed a penchant for making beautifully crafted movies with deeply misanthropic themes. Both of Villeneuve’s prior films portray conflicts of “bad versus evil” in which misery and pain can only be defeated by sinking lower, so that both sides are evil and one side is arbitrarily chosen as “the greater good”. So evil still prevails — and will always continue to prevail — because we’re all locked in a never-ending race to the bottom, and that’s just the way it has to be.
I find this worldview utterly abhorrent on every level. I reject it with every ounce of my being. To say that good is ineffectual naivete and evil can only be defeated by more evil is a malicious and absurd untruth. Yet this is purely a matter of personal belief and I’m not so void of cynicism that I can’t see the appeal. And I would never, ever claim that Villeneuve’s films aren’t impeccably crafted or superbly made.
With all of that said, I had some serious worries about Arrival. A movie with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and so many other talents? Splendid. A hard sci-fi film that dares to examine first contact with aliens through the question of how communication would even be possible? Fantastic.
It’s directed by a misanthropic filmmaker like Villeneuve? Whoo boy. This is going to be some movie about how we’d all be better off if the aliens destroyed us, isn’t it? Or maybe this will be an even more bleak and condescending spin on The Day the Earth Stood Still (or hell, Plan 9 From Outer Space), such that the aliens will scold us for our evil ways and go back to space to pass along the message that we’re all a bunch of assholes.
Oh, gentle readers. I can’t remember the last time I was so incredibly happy for being so incredibly wrong.
To start with, our de facto protagonist is a linguistic expert named Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). We open with a five-minute prologue in which we see the birth, life, and teenaged death of Louise’s daughter Hannah. So we’re starting with a downer right off the bat. But stay with me.
The story proper kicks off with the historic “Twelve Landings” event, in which twelve identical alien craft appeared at twelve seemingly random locations all over the world. They don’t seem to be making any hostile overtures, transmitting anything on any perceptible frequency, or really doing anything. All they do is hover in one place about fifty feet off the ground. And every 18 hours, they open up a door to a place inside the ship with artificial gravity, void of any known biological threats to human life. There, anyone who comes in can speak with the visiting aliens on the other side of a clear solid barrier, and… that’s it. So far.
See, it’s very difficult to figure out why these aliens are here and what they want when the aliens don’t seem to be doing much of anything, they don’t apparently have any way of speaking with us, and we have no way of knowing whether they understand us. And in many ways, not knowing is actually worse than knowing, since people across the globe use this event as an excuse to start riots, flex their military capabilities, and generally advance their own agenda. Then again, in the face of something so completely opaque and extraordinary, not to mention potentially hazardous, it’s not like extreme paranoia is entirely without justification.
Anyway, an international coalition is quickly assembled between the twelve countries where these crafts have parked themselves. The USA government — by way of Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker — has tapped Louise to help serve as a translator, finding some way of communicating with the aliens so we may get some crucial answers.
Trouble is, teaching and learning a language from square one would be hard enough in any situation, and it may in fact be impossible between two specimens of entirely different species. So this is a very difficult process that requires a lot of manpower and a lot of time, both of which are in short supply as citizens of the world grow increasingly anxious for any kind of answer.
That’s diplomacy for you: It takes continuous effort from two large and intricate operations working in perfect harmony to keep going, and it can so easily be destroyed by one asshole with a gun.
Perhaps more importantly, the film puts a HUGE emphasis on the give-and-take nature of diplomatic relations. Whether it’s between the humans and the aliens, or whether it’s between the different human countries, the biggest accomplishments in this film always happen when one side takes a leap of faith and gives up some measure of protection. Potentially stupid in the face of an unknown force that may completely wipe out humanity (either by accident or by intention)? Maybe. But trust is a two-way thing, and there can be no mutually beneficial relationship without trust. Furthermore, this is all about opening up lines of communication, and learning how to communicate through so many barriers will only get anyone so far.
And anyway, we’re all probably screwed over if an accord can’t be reached, so what difference does it make?
Then of course we have the science-fiction angle, which goes to some really trippy places. To start with, the filmmakers did a phenomenal job at making the aliens, their language, and their spacecraft truly unique. It’s not enough that they look like something out of this world — they don’t look or act like much of anything seen in film or TV before. It helps to sell the crucial notion that these creatures are so far removed from anything we might conceive that even the simple task of teaching them how to say “hello” would be a monumental feat.
Far more importantly, the “hard sci-fi” angle serves as a fascinating examination of speech, language, and its importance to our world history. Additionally, a wide variety of colonial incidents throughout the ages are invoked as comparisons to what the aliens might be doing and how the various human “tribes” are reacting. But by far the most important factor concerns the real-life hypothesis that learning a different language causes basic neurological change. Without spoiling too much, consider how that hypothesis might apply to someone learning the language of an extraterrestrial race.
All of this leads to a massive twist at the climax, such a huge and ingenious game-changer that I don’t dare discuss it any more than I have to. Unfortunately, the film noticeably drags after that huge climactic twist, as the filmmakers inexplicably decided to take us through the entire preceding story to show how the twist makes everything different. Stupid mistake — that’s what subsequent rewatches are for.
The big twist also affects the framing device, in which Louise flashes back to various basic English lessons with her daughter. At the time, it seems like a sort of internal monologue to show Louise’s thoughts on her work with the alien language. Only after the climax is this whole framing device revealed to be the single most diabolically clever and mind-blowingly effective instance of foreshadowing that I think I’ve ever seen.
Regarding the aliens and their big ultimate plan, of course I don’t want to get into detail about what that is and why it opens up so many plot holes that aren’t really plot holes. I’ll only say that I went to see this film with my parents, and we discussed at great length how the whole thing made sense. My dad invoked “Deep Space Nine”. I invoked “Watchmen”. If you’re not familiar with either of those two properties or the singular sci-fi concept they both have in common, you might have a difficult time wrapping your head around the plot. Fair warning.
Amy Adams really gets put through the wringer for this role, handling a vast range of emotions and scenarios like the undisputed champ she is. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg don’t get nearly as much to do, but they’re always a pleasure to see onscreen. Plus, they do so much to temper the “loud and short-tempered hawkish dumbass” cliche that these characters might have been in any other film or with any other actors.
The other supporting character worthy of note is Dr. Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. Aside from acting as an emotional support and a sounding board for Louise, the character doesn’t really do much, I’m sorry to say. That said, Renner still has more than enough screen presence to leave an impression, and he has great chemistry with his old American Hustle costar. Renner does a fantastic job of doing more with less, and that’s to be commended. Plus, given how regrettably common it still is to have the dynamic and proactive male lead be saddled with a useless female love interest, I’d much rather see vice-versa any day.
Behind the scenes, Villenevue mainstay Johann Johannsson returns to compose the score. It’s effective in places, though sadly too distracting in the first act. In those opening minutes when we don’t know how the aliens communicate, it was too difficult to tell which sounds belonged to the aggressive score and which ones were coming from the aliens. Elsewhere, Joe Walker — another recurring Villenevue collaborator — came on to edit the film, and his contributions are especially vital in selling that big climactic twist. Alas, grandmaster Roger Deakins didn’t come back to do the cinematography this time, but Bradford Young turns in some spectacular photography nonetheless.
On a final note, the role of China in this film may be worthy of some discussion. On the one hand, its portrayal in the film and its role in the plot — especially toward the end — could be perceived as pandering to the all-important Chinese market that’s playing an increasingly influential and controversial role in Hollywood filmmaking. But on the other hand, if it’s done in a way that makes a sincere statement in favor of international cooperation and coming together as fellow human beings toward the shared goal of a better world (see also: The Martian), I’m all for it.
Arrival is a deeply clever and wonderfully intelligent work of hard sci-fi cinema. Even if the plot lags in places (especially that interminable denouement), the production design is magnificent, the actors are all on point, and some heady sci-fi concepts are used to make clever and insightful statements about where we are now and where we could be going if we set aside our innate paranoia. I honestly didn’t think Villenevue could make such an uplifting and optimistic story, and I’m thrilled beyond words that he proved otherwise.
This one is absolutely recommended.