“A vivid, ethereal picture”

by Steve Pulaski

Arrival more-or-less solidifies director Denis Villeneuve as a directorial craftsman, so careful and mannered when it comes to perfecting the visual look and feel of his films. With this and Villeneuve’s last two films, Prisoners and Sicario, it’s evident that he has worked to capture what exactly we love about film – its mystique, its aura, its involving narratives, and its emotional complexities that create these amazing experiences. Arrival, despite succumbing to some of the more tedious tropes of modern science-fiction, nonetheless does its part to remind us and emphasize why we love and are attracted to this genre of films so much.

The film opens with multiple spacecrafts landing on various different countries bringing with them alien lifeforms with unknown motives. Their spaceships are crescent-shaped “shells,” and land everywhere from Sierra Leone, Japan, China, and the state of Montana. U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up to the office of linguist professor Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams, who works to make this an emotionally complete experience) door one day to request her services in discerning the communication and speaking patterns of these aliens. The aliens are called “Heptapods” due to their seven, distended arms being a large part of their bodily makeup.

Assisted by a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise spends time communicating with two Heptapods, nicknamed Abbott and Costello, through a large pane of glass. The Heptapods communicate by spreading one of their tentacles and unleashing a faint aura of black-ink that forms a dark circle with unique patterns on the glass before disappearing after a few seconds. This not only makes their language complex – similar to Mandarin, where each symbol within the circle means a completely different word or letter – but it makes their communication abilities elaborate, with the ability to articulate complete and lengthy sentences in just a few seconds.

Directed by
Denis Villeneuve
Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Release Date
11 November 2016
Steve’s Grade: B

Ian claims it would be like before you wrote a sentence on a piece of paper, you knew exactly how long that sentence would be, what it would look like, and how much space it would take up.

Louise and Ian painstakingly slave over trying to break down each little marker in the Heptapods’ entirely symbol-dependent language, and come to the consensus that one of their statements requests the use of a “weapon.” Obviously, most see this as a threat of violence, whereas Louise assumes that the creatures actually mean “tool” and that they may not be able to differentiate between some words and the severity of others. Meanwhile, the rest of the world grows impatient with trying to figure out the aliens’ motives, much less how to basically communicate with them, and threaten violent resistance against them, giving the U.S. Military desperately little time to try to determine the purpose of these aliens’ presence on Earth.

Though I dearly miss the presence of Villeneuve’s right-hand-man cinematographer Roger Deakins, I must admit that Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Pawn Sacrifice) picks up the cinematographical details quite well, with a film that looks absolutely ethereal and hypnotic. With cloudy landscapes and foggy visuals, Young helps Villeneuve paint a vivid, ethereal picture of a world now inhabited and at the mercy of never-before-seen lifeforms. Any dedicated fan of the genre knows that science-fiction can draw you on the very basis of its look and feel, and Young gets the sensory experience aspect of the film not just in moments, but consistently, throughout the entire film.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who wrote/directed Paul Walker’s final film, Hours, and more famously wrote Lights Out) does a great job at making Arrival a film of subtle, low-key moments that works in exposing the lazier films of the same genre, like Battle: Los Angeles for example. Here’s a film where an alien’s response to a human putting her hand on the glass that divides them is spreading his tentacle out on the same glass feels like an event and extraordinary payoff. This is because Arrivaldoesn’t feel like giving you what you thought you came for, but like a good, active participant in the audience, it makes you work for it in terms of sticking with the characters and following the film from the very beginning.

Themes revolving around the importance of communication and compromise over the use of violence and drastic measures (what could be a more fitting theme during times like these?) work a lot stronger than when Heisserer tries to have his characters ask hokey questions like, “if you could see your entire life play out before your eyes, would you change anything?” When the convolution in narrative began to prevail during the film’s hectic third act, though I feel I understood most of it, I was taken out of the gentle, cerebral feel in which the film had immersed me up until that point.

Films like Arrival love to ask the tougher, “unanswerable” questions as if they’re trying to extend the amount of ways they can be profound, or optimistically set up the next installment in a would-be franchise. However, just by its focus on the beauty and complexity of language and its constant, ethereal feeling, I admired Arrival; I didn’t need any added existentialism nor time-altering ideas to complete my experience.