‘Arrival’ is masterfully paced sci-fi with a thought-provoking twist

July 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Arrival' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Denis Villeneuve is one of our most fascinating filmmakers.

He might just be the best Canadian-born director since David Cronenberg (“Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers”) at building a palpable dread without losing sight of his characters’ humanity.

His “Prisoners” (2013) was a masterful child abduction thriller that only improves with each new viewing; “Enemy” (2014) was a fascinating look at identity through the eyes of dopplegangers; and “Sicario” (2015) was an intense, gritty crime drama of drug dealings along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now, Villeneuve dives into science fiction with “Arrival,” based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life.” It follows a grieving mother and renowned linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is recruited by military officer Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to translate alien communications after 12 egg-like spaceships show up on Earth.

The film’s strength lies in its chief conduit, Amy Adams, arguably the Academy’s most overdue actress after six Golden Globe nods and five Oscar nods across “June Bug” (2005), “Enchanted” (2007), “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), “Doubt” (2008), “Julie & Julia” (2009), “The Fighter” (2010), “The Master” (2012), “Man of Steel” (2013), “Her” (2013), “American Hustle” (2013) and “Big Eyes” (2014).

In “Arrival,” her fragile yet determined presence commands the screen as we gasp alongside her in that space helmet. She reunites with her “American Hustle” co-star Jeremy Renner, who is perfectly understated in his role, while Forest Whitaker’s military brass offers just the right amount of anxiety for the film’s “brink of war” ticking clock that could have felt cliché if not handled with proper finesse.

That ticking clock is controlled by the steady hand of Villeneuve, who has little interest in making an alien attack blockbuster like “Independence Day” (1996) or “Men In Black” (1997). Nor is he trying to craft a breathtaking survival tale like “Apollo 13” (1995), “Gravity” (2013) or “The Martian” (2015). His aim is closer to Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), treating the arrival with the seriousness of a global event like 9/11, as families gather around TV sets and teachers stop mid-class.

After this initial arrival, the build up to “first contact” is equally masterful in its slow-burn pacing, ramping up suspense with contemplative patience and long helicopter shots. When the crew enters the ship’s anti-gravity chute, Villeneuve brilliantly subverts our directional compass like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), altering the X-Y axis so we don’t know what’s up or down.

But the real visual treat comes when we finally reach the main chamber, as the human translators and alien creatures are separated only by a sheet of glass (i.e. Spock and Kirk in “The Wrath of Khan”). The floating, octopus-style creatures — dubbed “heptapods” and nicknamed Abbott and Costello — are refreshingly different from the biomechanics pioneered by H.R. Giger in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).

This human-to-alien communication is awe-inspiring, recalling the magic of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), only instead of John Williams’ five-note score, these aliens communicate via orca-like moans and circular ink blots. It’s here that the film is its most atmospheric, blending the eerie fog of cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”), patient editing of Joe Walker (“12 Years a Slave”) and ethereal music of Jóhann Jóhannsson (“Theory of Everything”).

While these powerful scenes will burn into your brain, they flirt with repetitiveness as we return to them over and over again. Perhaps this is the result of trying to stretch a short story into a full feature adapted by Eric Heisserer, who typically pens horror remakes: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (2013), “Final Destination 5” (2011) and “The Thing” (2011). In the end though, this is mostly forgivable, as it would realistically take countless communication attempts in order to translate an alien language.

It all builds to a mind-blowing twist most akin to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet sci-fi epic “Solaris” (1972), posing existential themes with fascinating family implications. This big reveal will no doubt perplex some viewers, sparking questions as to why the aliens arrived in the first place. While many films falter by stooping to audience hand-holding, a little more exposition would’ve gone a long way here.

If you exit the theater scratching your head, here are some answers to help make sense of it:

****SPOILERS BELOW****

Question: Why exactly did the aliens come to Earth?

Answer: A calamitous event is about to happen in 3,000 years and they need our help.

Question: Why did the aliens mention giving mankind a “weapon?”

Answer: Not a “weapon,” it’s a “tool.” This gift is the ability to see time non-linearly (see the future). Just as the aliens write their language in two-directional circles, this is also how they see time.

Question: Why did the aliens come all this way with 12 ships to help only one person (Amy Adams)?

Answer: They were trying to impart all of humanity with this time-altering trick (hence the 12 ships), but Adams was the only one brave and humble enough to receive it before the other trigger-happy nations scared them away. This is a key theme: that humanity shouldn’t resort to knee-jerk attacks.

Question: What about the flashbacks Amy Adams has of her cancer-ridden child?

Answer: These aren’t flashbacks. They are flashforwards. As Amy Adams works with the alien language, it begins to rewire her brain so that she begins to see flashes of her future where she marries Jeremy Renner and raises her daughter, who will ultimately die of cancer.

Question: How can this be? The film opens with those images before she even meets the aliens?

Answer: This opening sequence is just a framing device to bookend the film (many movies do this like “Citizen Kane” or “Pulp Fiction”). Villeneuve is rewiring audience’s brains like the aliens rewire that of Adams. The whole film is a palindrome, working forward and backward, like her daughter “Hannah.”

Question: Why would she give birth to Hannah knowing that she’ll ultimately die of cancer?

Answer: She decides it’s worth the heartbreak to experience life’s joyous moments as well. This is the film’s biggest theme: choosing to live despite knowing the tragic ending. Like Garth Brooks sang, “I could’ve missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” It’s a beautiful way of looking at life.

****SPOILERS ABOVE****

Does it make more sense now? If you were confused the first time, I completely understand. For a film about communication, “Arrival” ironically doesn’t communicate these heady concepts flawlessly on first viewing. Often, the best science fiction poses big questions to be chewed on for days, and the circular logic of “Arrival” is tricky to unpack. You almost need to know the ending to appreciate it.

At first glance, I wasn’t sold on the perplexing reveal. But after a second viewing, I promise you it not only holds up, it’s even more intricate and cleverly constructed. “Arrival” is brilliantly thought-provoking, exploring the circular nature of time, the difference between “tools” and “weapons,” the danger of a trigger-happy society, and whether we might choose to live even if we know the outcome.

It’s another reminder of why I respectfully disagree with famed movie critic Pauline Kael, who never saw a movie more than once. Re-viewing reveals genius. There’s a reason they’re called film reviews.

This rating is on a 4-star scale. See where this movie ranks among the year’s best in our Fraley Film Guide.

3-and-half-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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