Arrival (2016)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker.

I really really really hated Interstellar. I found it pretentious, terrible, incoherent, confusing, boring, long, and basically entirely unwatchable. From having to care so much about the microcosm of the main character’s shitty family, to the melodrama that permeated the entire experience, finally culminating in a bizarre and just crappy black hole mess, the movie was just so so so so bad for me. Luckily, Arrival is the movie Interstellar should have been, or could have been. And I am a fan!

I’m somewhat impressed and taken aback that Eric Heisserer was able to write this brilliant screenplay, and am left wondering if the success of the movie rests partly on his shoulders, or if the superb direction and cast elevated his script to heights he never could have hoped for. I say this, because all the other movies the writer has penned are subpar b-movies or horror sequels/remakes. Just taking a look at his previous scripts, you don’t see much talent that would indicate an Oscar worthy movie: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Final Destination 5, The Thing (2011), Hours, and Lights Out. Not really much to write home about, or anyone for that matter.

And yet this is an Oscar worthy movie. So much so that it is nominated for 8 of them, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing. For all intents and purposes it is a bona fide hit. I guess I was more impressed by everything else in the film, and not so much the screenplay… especially when Amy Adams was left off the awards list for a movie that works because she carries it entirely on her shoulders and her glorious performance. But more on that in a bit.

Louise Banks (Adams, American Hustle) is a linguist and professor, reeling from the death of her daughter to a slow disease. One day she goes to class to find only a few students. Seconds into her lecture there is a breakout of phone ringtones that interrupt everything, and Louise is asked by a student to turn the news on. Mysterious spaceships have landed on Earth, in various locations, and chaos has begun to take over the world. It’s not long before Louise is visited by a government and military official (Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) asking her to come help decipher the alien language and communicate with the visitors. Also tasked to help in the mission is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker). The aliens are not in any way humanoid in shape or behavior, and their language is not like anything that exists on earth. The task at hand is difficult, and competing governments on earth risk peace and even survival. The stakes are high and the time is not much to make a difference and effect change.

There isn’t much action in the traditional sense of the word. The pacing is quite slow, but this is a deliberate choice. The mood is much more important than any singular moment. There is an intensity to the film, and the ethereal cinematography only helps drive this home. The fog that envelops the spaceship and the smoky chamber that keeps the aliens separate from the humans aid in the understanding that these creatures are not like us, and we do not understand them. Denis Villeneuve is clearly an expert at this point, and the final result is a phenomenal movie that may be science fiction, but acts like it’s not. The fact that the entire film centers around the topic of language and linguistics is a phenomenal and brilliant decision. Maybe I am biased, but I was sold on the premise and it’s truly why I loved the movie as much as I did. The final message of the movie is poignant, beautiful, and hits home in a way I didn’t expect it to be able to deliver as well as it did.

While Renner and Whitaker are good, the movie really only belongs to Adams. She is the only real star of the film, and nobody else matters. Her expressions, her eyes, tell the story – we feel it through her, with her, because of her. She is the standout and the reason the film succeeds. Without her this movie would be nothing, so it’s a shame that amongst all those nominations I mentioned earlier, her name is conspicuously absent. Absent is also the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (ironic that he and Adams were the only two nominations the film got at the Golden Globes), which is subtle in its presence, just like the fog and smoke that permeate the movie throughout.

I loved everything about the film, and the fact that the film could have gone bombastic or melodramatic but knew not to is what makes it really great, Oscar worthy even. Not like that other dumb movie I mentioned earlier.

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