Finding Our Humanity Sometimes Requires An Unexpected Arrival

An alternate version of this review, originally published for CLTure, was posted on their site on November 11th, 2016.

Adapted from the novel Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, writer Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario/Prisoners) flesh out the story to create an intimate narrative of humanity’s first contact in Arrival. Forgoing bombastic action sequences and brash heroes commonplace in alien invasion pictures, Arrival entreats audiences to look inward, to examine our own humanity through the eyes of The Other. It’s a timely feature that reminds audiences that our singular lives contain connections that go beyond our fingertips and that our decisions today ripple through time. Understanding that, however, requires perspective – a heavy theme throughout the film.

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(L-R) Amy Adams as Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

After twelve alien spacecrafts appear in locations scattered around the globe, renowned linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to discover a way to communicate with the inhabitants as part of the U.S. scientific team. Partnered with theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks must find a way to find out what the aliens want before global hysteria takes control and war is declared on the enigmatic visitors.

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(L-R) Adams with director Denis Villeneuve on the set of ARRIVAL.

Because Arrival is a mystery thriller set within a science-fiction frame, it’s difficult to discuss the particulars of the film without heading into spoiler territory; however, moving forward, careful consideration is made to avoid ruining this masterful, emotional experience. Given the cryptic trailers and marketing, the easiest way to describe Arrival is an amalgamation of Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain and Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar – films that use space travel and The Other to examine larger themes of humanity, hope, and love. In Arrival, Heisserer and Villeneuve take a global event and narrow the focus to one individual – Louise Banks (Adams) – as a means of containing the story within a singular viewpoint. So many invasion films take time to showcase how other countries and individuals are handling the event, while Arrival is more minute.

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(L-R) Renner and Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpern.

Villeneuve instills the sensation of an intimate story by placing Banks’ environment in a perpetual haze until she shifts or regains focus. This halo of clarity around Banks makes it undeniably clear that the perspective audiences are going to see belongs to Banks. What she values, how she works, and her connection to language drive not only the story of Arrival, but, in turn, shapes the way audiences will respond. Therefore, when a communication breakdown occurs between the global research teams, the impact is greater because it reduces both the audience’s and Banks knowledge of outside events. Instantly ramping up tension and forcing the audience to process everything just as Banks does. We, like Banks, are locked out and alienated. This granular approach of storytelling adds a refreshing element to the genre, requiring audiences to actively consider how they would proceed in the same situation. Admittedly, Villeneuve takes a risk by shifting the expected focus from humanity’s larger response to first contact, but in doing so issues a subconscious challenge of active presence. Brazen – yes, but restorative to the genre and highlights just how bold the film is at its core.

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The Science Team enters the meeting chamber.

The cast holds their water as well. Unsurprisingly, Adams delivers a performance that is multifaceted and effortless; portraying Banks as guarded, yet receptive, cold, yet maternal. Adams continually gets better with every performance and somehow manages to impress further here in her depiction of a woman who always seems a step apart from humanity, even though she possesses the tools to communication with us all. In comparison, Renner’s Donnelly is bright, affable, and quick to pick up on Banks conceptions, demonstrating a clever mind at work. Impressively, Donnelly isn’t the standard supportive character as his working relationship with Banks is key to the unfolding plot; however, he’s seen more often than heard, providing a fresh take on the male-female dynamic. Forrest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber serves as the main military presence in the film, overseeing the research of the spacecraft on United States soil. Rather than serving as the standard government cutout, Whitaker conveys Weber’s desire to provide answers and a willingness to take his time to get them. Weber wants answers, but understands that even with time as a factor, patience and precision wins out. Rounding out the cast are supportive roles from Tzi Ma (Rush Hour) as General Shang of the Chinese army, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) as C.I.A. agent Halpern, and Mark O’Brien (Halt and Catch Fire) as Captain Marks, the head of research team’s protective detail. There is not a single wasted character –big or small – anywhere within Arrival. Even in the absence of a cast member, the feeling of persistent significance lingers in every frame. Therein lies the profundity of the mystery of Arrival. It’s somehow more than it seems, while using as little as possible.

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Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) stands before the barrier in the meeting chamber.

Arrival raises many questions, yet provides few answers which is bound to frustrate some audiences. Whether this is purposeful or a by-product of page-to-screen adaptation is unclear for this reviewer, but what is certain is there is much to be in awe of. Arrival resonates on a higher level than standard alien invasion faire, using the veil of science-fiction intrigue to deliver a deeply affecting, personal story of a woman seemingly locked in grief as the epicenter for hope, love, and humanity’s safety. Missing out on Arrival in theaters – let alone missing out completely – would be a disservice to audiences around the world.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

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