French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has been showing his skills on crafting very tight atmospheric thrillers for the past couple of years. If you’re not familiar with INCENDIES, his Frech and Oscar-nominated film, you might probably heard of PRISONERS (starred Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal), ENEMY (again, starred Jake Gylenhaal) or even SICARIO (with Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro). And if you still aren’t, you’re in for a treat for his latest entry, ARRIVAL.
Adapted from a short story titled ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, ARRIVAL follows a story of a linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who was recruited into a special elite team led by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) to investigate a seemingly peculiar extraterrestrial object that just landed on Montana. It was actually one of the 12 ‘spacecrafts’ which had appeared all around the world in just overnight. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise and her team then got introduced to strange creatures they called heptapods (due to
8 7 long ‘tentacles’ they posses) that reside on the object. Rushed by the higher ups, including foreign officials, who are convinced these heptapods were threats and ready to attack earth, Louise and Ian had to work against time to communicate -and understand, who and why these aliens are here for.
Still in the same DNA as his previous films, ARRIVAL is a puzzling mystery film that slowly but surely will grip you hard. But unlike before, we’re not dealing with kidnappers, killlers or drug dealers. This time, we’re facing aliens. Aided by scriptwriter Eric Heisserer, every aspect of the story was neatly calculated and brilliantly orchestrated into a very rewarding experience. Some people have mentioned online that ARRIVAL is categorized as a ‘thinking person’s sci-fi’ (a term that I have never heard prior to the release of this film, or was I actually behind? lol), which means it’s a bit different than most of the mainstream ‘alien invasions’ films out there. But thankfully, labeling itself as a science-fiction, Heisserer’s script never really indulged us with too many perplexing concepts of science yet never really simplified them either. And if you expect ARRIVAL to feature loud blasting explosions and scary (err that depends) human-eating monsters, sorry to burst your bubble, but your experience will be more sophisticated than that.
One the basis of this film is about language. How we use and perceive them might differ from how others do it. A word or a sentence can be translated into many different meanings. How translation cannot be done word for word, but as a whole. It showed in the film on how each country has their own way of communication to these aliens, which in one point led to fatal disagreements. This film really highlights on how important an effective communication is. Language really is the foundation of civilization, just like one of the lines in this movie stated. That’s why I think how Ted Chiang made a linguist as a front-and-center protagonist in a story about aliens (as a metaphor of two different worlds) is really interesting. But the real cream of the crop of this story was actually revealed near the end. Of course I won’t spoil any details, but it involves an understanding of life and death. How we have to accept every moment in life, the good and even the terrible ones.
Most audiences might lose interest with the slow pacing of the film. But it actually helped me to absorb the emotional journey of the character of Louise (in which beautifully paid off in the revelation at the end). And it was actually infinitely made better by Amy Adams incredible performance. Her portrayal as a briliant and tough yet vulnerable and isolated woman discovering out-of-this-world strange-beings coinciding with her discovering herself was done in such class and elegance. I love how her character was not one-dimensional, and probably one of the best character arcs we got in 2016. Jeremy Renner also gave enough charm that made his character to became more than just a sidekick.
On its cover, ARRIVAL might look like just like another alien invasion film. But at its core, this film is a multi-layered story about life. It’s about humanity, how we interact with ourselves, and with each other. About learning that life is all about the journey, not destination. There are still questions in this film left unanswered, but I think it’s not the point, for now. And with the help from Bradford Young for its beautifully-muted cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson for its one-of-a-kind score, made this film more than your usual sci-fi fare. How Villeneuve turned what could have been ‘just’ an alien thriller into also an emotional and spiritual journey was the reason this film satisfyingly got the best of both spectrums. [A-]