How often does a movie change your life?
I’m an emotional guy. I cry during movies all the time. But never before Arrival had I openly wept due to the thrill of discovery.
Others are comparing this film to the likes of Interstellar and The Martian simply because its narrative involves elements of science and space. That’s incredibly disingenuous. Arrival has more in common with thematic powerhouses like The Tree of Life and Cloud Atlas: it’s a massively ambitious triumph that will teach you something by cerebrally encompassing all things.
Director Denis Villeneuve broke onto the scene quickly. He quietly impressed the world in 2013 with Prisoners (his first English-language film), and within two years he directed the bizarre mystery of Enemy and the brutal drug trade of Sicario to equal fanfare. His style is already signature: Villeneuve slowly paints pictures; he deliberately paces unsettling stories in order to make a greater point.
With Arrival, he rips open the frame of his picture and widens its scope to sweep his brush over all of existence. Plot-wise, the movie is about an accomplished linguist (Amy Adams) who is recruited by the US Army to attempt initial communication with aliens that have recently arrived (GET IT?) on Earth. Spaceships that look like humongous oblong slabs of marble hover over multiple spots around the world, prompting governments to send in their best to establish rapport with the aliens. Linguist Louise and mathematician Ian (Jeremy Renner) are among these best and soon enter a spacecraft to meet the future.
Before I expound on Arrival’s grand purpose, I’d be remiss not to praise Villeneuve’s direction. As always, his steady style methodically tells us everything we need to know through visuals alone, utilizing slow zooms and perfectly framed shots to both impress and inform the audience.
I really want to talk about what makes Arrival so simultaneously mind shattering and heartwarming. The film’s narrative is extremely complex: themes like the nature of time, free will, fate and the vagaries of language and the human mind are explored as regular plot developments at every turn. This is not a “sit down and turn your brain off” movie: just to grasp the story, I had to think harder than I ever have before during a film.
But if you dedicate yourself to studying what Arrival has to offer, the experience is enormously rewarding. The screenplay — which was based on Story of Your Life, a daringly original 1998 short story — primarily uses the sci-fi tale as a lens with which to examine the fundamental tenants of how our universe works.
The second you wrap your head around the narrative, Arrival’s themes explode gracefully like a personal revelation. I don’t want to give any thematic specifics away because Arrival really is a transformation every human being should undergo in theaters. I will say that it caused me to consider philosophical questions in a way that I never have before. This is cinema that can open up channels in your mind.
Arrival pulls this off with a screenplay bursting with big ideas. Much credit could go to Ted Chiang’s original story, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer has been trying to adapt the short story to film for years. His passion proves itself, giving us a film that desperately and brilliantly wants us to understand its huge theories. Arrival carefully weaves its concepts into the life of Louise, crafting a character that helps us further fathom the film the more we identify with her. Amy Adams plays into this mission expertly.
Think 2001: A Space Odyssey if it was more personal and the ending made sense.
Arrival is just like the written language of its aliens: a beautiful mystery that will open your mind if you open your heart to it. You might not see another film this intelligent and poignant for a long time.
★★★★★ (5 out of 5)!