Science fiction often is more fiction than science. Which is fine, they are stories after all and are not meant to be real just true. Often what happens is in the sacrifice to the fiction we lose the science or the intellectual substance. At least in regards to Hollywood big budget extravaganzas.
The art of storytelling is a war between the intellectual and the emotional. How do you do one without diluting the other? Is it even possible to have something be intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant? Don’t be silly of course it is.
Arrival is a subtle, nuanced look at the choices Dr. Louise Banks makes and will make, in her life. It’s about the choices she makes as a wife, a mother, and as a linguist. Oh, and there are aliens, spaceships, and an explosion or two.
All those things are just dressing. They exist as a way to explore Louise. From the get go, Denis Villeneuve uses empty space and wide shots to establish the emotional state of Louise. She is a woman on her own, a woman apart. Also, it looks really cool.
Eric Heisserer’s script wastes little time setting up her intellect and emotional state. He does this by utilizing the things people say and how they say it. Both Villeneuve and Heisserer establish Louise as a brilliant, competent, complex character.
The hero is a linguist. There is a refreshing lack of villains. The story is allowed to breathe and develop at its own lingering thoughtful pace. Villeneuve holds us at arms lengths not in an emotionally distant way but in the way a magician holds you back while he readies his next trick.
Amy Adams is extraordinary as Louise. Her posture as she is surrounded by men, who outrank her, the way her eyes flicker when people talk to her. She’s a linguist who listens. The way she understands language and indeed the way language Arrival explores is a large part of why the movie is so exceptional. There’s a sharp little exchange early on between Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Louise that exemplifies how these two think.
That they are allowed to think at all is a novelty. But that they are allowed to think and express their thought process is rarer. Arrival cherishes moments like this. It’s a movie that snuggles in the moments of characters expressing themselves both in words and in how they look at each other.
What is most exceptional about this film, among the many, many, many extraordinary things, is how it utilizes every tool in the cinematic toolbox. Villeneuve and his cinematographer Bradford Young use negative space in such a way as to both illustrate the emotions of the characters while simultaneously creating a stoic and tense atmosphere. The sound never behaves the way we’ve been conditioned to believe it should.
I loved the scenes with Ian (Jeremy Renner) and Louise trying to create a dialogue with the aliens, the divide between the two teams resembles a movie screen. Villeneuve and Young even frame it as such with these wonderful long shots. The aliens are bigger than life. He frames the first meeting with the aliens, and all the conversations with them as the holiest experience he can think of: he frames it as if they are going to the movies. Louise and Ian are look up at the aliens; larger than life images on the screen. Ian even names the aliens Abbott and Costello.
Arrival isn’t about Aliens. It’s about Louise. For in the mix of all this, we have a time travel story. Still, even more, a story about a woman coming to grips with herself and her future. Amy Adams is superb. She allows herself to play with the movie’s complex emotional demands. Adams dominates every scene even the ones she’s not in. She imbues Louise with a quiet, persistent strength and a curious disposition.
I love this movie. I love everything about this movie. Arrival is a film for adults, which is nice because Hollywood seems to give us these movies so rarely. It does the rare thing of giving us an engaging intellectually and emotionally satisfying story. I’d say more, but I’m off to see it again for the second time in two days. You should do the same.