Science is hard. Poetry is hard. Experimentation results in failures, reaching for the stars results in calamity. Trying to do something extraordinary immediately results in comparison’s to what’s after-the-fact ordinary. Once Kubrick did it, is it less exciting when another reaches out in similar ways? What if Interstellar sees Nolan attempting to fly off into both the physic and metaphysic? Or Malick does his thing as he’s done over the last decade, enticing audiences with nonsensical moments that mask the solemnity of the celestial infinite with simply arbitrary meanderings?
No, we’ve got a new master at play here. Denis Villeneuve has been building up with film after film showing ambition and intelligence. If Sicario was underloved it’s because audiences didn’t like the ambivalence it portrayed, while Enemy was too weird, and Incendies too incendiary. Prisoners was an attempted magic trick, the popular film that’s artistically ambitious, but held down but a heavy-handed final act that flattened more than it meant to.
Then there’s Arrival, a work of confidence and craft, one to be celebrated and cherished. It’s got a true gem of a star in the form of Amy Adams, a performer who can go from Muppets to Master within the blink of an eye. Here we see her as a linguistics professor, teaching us how to see things differently, how we are shaped by how we communicate. It’s a profound idea, one buttressed by her colleague Jeremy Renner, or the sympathetically competent military man played by Forest Whitaker.
The documentary The Visit would make a fine companion to this film – another film that asked more questions than it answered, dealing in the reality of what would happen if they did in fact come. The arrival from those outside our known existence is always jarring, yet it’s for many of us generations since a true intellectual, political and spiritual upheaval has taken place on this magnitude.
This is a decidedly contemporary take on the geopolitics of an alien invasion – rather than general paranoia of the 1950s, the embrace of the extravagance of Spielberg in the 70s, or the bombastic militarism of the 80s and 90s, this is all about the cacophony caused by an onslaught of communication. It’s a film that plays with the idea that modes of communication change our natures, take the idea that the very limits of our imagination are constrained not by our nature but by our methods of expression.
Yes, it’s heady stuff, but it’s also a beautiful film with beautiful performances. Villeneuve knows how to move a camera, and it’s here that the Kubrick allusions are even more complimentary. A bravado sequence involving gravitational inversion and scissor lifts is particularly energizing, but everything from the design of the ship to the elements within are quite terrific.
The entire palate of the film feels a bit rainy and North Western, but still manages for that to come across as inviting rather than somber. And while it unfolds in a way that may be telegraphed for some, a surprise for others, it’s not a work that requires its parlour trick to do the heavy lifting.
Quite simply, Arrival is one of the most extraordinary, affecting films of the year, a delicate balance between intellect and passion, finding ways to entertain while opening one’s mind up to possibilities. I had happy dreams the night after I saw this film, images shaped by the experience of seeing something that feels both impressive and important. Villeneuve, if he’s not already, is a director you should add to that list where you simply must see whatever he does. It may not be to your liking, but you’re going to get something beautifully crafted and something that just might make you fall in love with movies after an onslaught of far more pedestrian, predictable fodder that’s part of our regular theatrical diet.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.