One of the questions that occurs to you while watching ‘Arrival” is; just what makes a film ‘beautiful’? Sometimes there’s a certain lyricism in the sense of movement or a languid pace. Sometimes it’s obvious CGI artists have worked extra hard to make something otherworldly look like it really belongs, the director convincingly staging a real world around it and the actors behaving like people really would, making it all seem so real.
Sometimes it’s the photogenic leads, which Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as linguist Louise Banks and mathematician Ian Donnelly certainly are.
Along with all the above, ”Arrival” has a certain way of playing delicately with light and shade and the often downcast faces of his stars, giving the whole thing a mood of sadness and melancholy. But whatever X factor infuses every frame, Arrival is one of the most beautiful films of the year, more like a poem about aliens visiting Earth written by someone who’s still fragile after losing a loved one than a destruction-porn CGI blockbuster.
Which is exactly what Louise Banks is, having lost her teenage daughter to cancer in the opening flashback, now an intelligent but quiet woman who keeps her head down and does her job as a university professor.
When gruff military office Webber (Forest Whitaker, mercifully reigning in his usual scenery-chewing) visits her one day, it’s with the assignment of a lifetime. After doing translation work on a recording supposedly made by Middle Eastern insurgents for the army before she has the required security clearance, and her job this time will be as part of a team intended to board one of the enormous spaceships that have landed at twelve points around the globe, one of them in rural Montana.
Remember the squad of straight-backed, government appointed professionals we briefly see in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in their red jumpsuits, the team groomed and trained by the government to go aboard the alien mothership when it arrives? In a way, Arrival is their story – the people at the top of their field the governments of the world would put together to initiate and manage first contact.
Along with a squad of soldiers and fellow scientist Ian, Louise is charged with deciphering any language their visitors use to learn what they want. From their half dome-shaped ships that hover a few dozen feet off the ground and stretch all the way into the sky, the occupants have done nothing to make their intentions known.
Louise, Ian and their minders encounter the strange physics inside the craft before meeting their guests – huge, seven-legged squid creatures they call heptapods. Their method of communicating (also like squids) is to squirt circles of black ink against the barrier that protects their atmosphere from ours, and as Louise and Ian scramble to understand it, international relations start to crumble thanks to the paranoia and mistrust.
And all the while, the loss of her daughter wends and weaves its way both throughout the film and Louise’s life. Her memories and dreams of the girl seem to bleed into her waking hours, and at times you’re not sure if she’s just falling asleep and dreaming at her desk or whether it’s some effect of the aliens’ presence.
When Louise figures out their language has a strange temporal basis that isn’t like ours, it throws up questions about humanity’s (and Louise’s) understanding and experience of time, memory and love, which serves a dual purpose as the deeper theme of the story.
It all goes a bit too deeply into a tragic family backstory rabbit hole at the end, the twist not making a lot of sense – the same thing was handled with a bit more accessibility by Chris Nolan in Interstellar.
But despite that, ”Arrival” is visually and emotionally rich. The way it moves has a real sense of grace and despite huge sci-fi ideas and the presence of very big spaceships, it concentrates on Adams walking through the grass staring at the ground, the shadow of the enormous ship miles away. Like the best sci-fi, the spectacle is a framework to ask big questions and investigate the human condition we use to ask them.
Adams can’t quite escape her eternally perky air, but here it just makes her seem all the more lost and vulnerable. The real star is writer/director Denis Villeneuve – after the grit and grime of his last film ”Sicario”, the poetic tone in ”Arrival” is quite an achievement. It’s another very confident vision from the director, and it bodes well for the forthcoming ”Blade Runner” sequel.