Denis Villeneuve is a magician whose films are stage acts shaped around distraction. He compels his audience to focus on his right hand and remain blissfully ignorant of what he’s doing with his left. When at his best he doesn’t care where you lay your gaze, because he has his trick down so pat that you won’t recognize the seams even if you look for them. That’s the gulf between his 2014 psycho-horror puzzle box, Enemy, and his 2015 drug cartel thriller, Sicario, a film that’s one part solid genre exercise, one part easy, self-satisfied political commentary. The first is such a convincing illusion that we lose ourselves in it, while the second is a routine we’ve all seen performed before, and performed better.
This is to say that your appreciation of Villeneuve’s new film, Arrival, will hinge on how well you like being led astray. It’s both the full embodiment of Villeneuve’s approach to cinema and a marvelous, absorptive piece of science fiction, a two hour sleight-of-hand stunt that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge of its plot as possible. Fundamentally, it’s about the day aliens make landfall on Earth, and all the days that come after. To sum up the collective human response in a word, it’s mayhem, because nobody paying attention to world news in 2016 could get away with making a movie about first contact where the world doesn’t go berserk. The aliens land a dozen different colossal obsidian vessels in a dozen different spots across the globe, from Russia, to China, to the literal middle of nowhere in Montana, Villeneuve’s primary setting.
If there’s a subtext to Arrival beyond those communicated in Eric Heisserer’s script and Villeneuve’s direction, it’s “Thank Christ for Amy Adams.” The film begins, continues and ends with Adams leading the narrative as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist commissioned by the U.S. Army to figure out how the hell to communicate with our alien visitors. As is standard in these kinds of movies, she is one member of a team enlisted for the task, including mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), and CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the most ubiquitous supporting actors of the fall/winter movie season). As is becoming the standard in Villeneuve’s kind of movie, she’s the smartest one in the room, unless it’s the waiting area where she and her colleagues try to speak to the heptapods.
That’s the name humanity gives to the aliens on account of their appearance: We don’t get a full glimpse of them until the film’s final act, but we see enough of them to know they are huge, tentacled creatures—seven-tentacled creatures, to be exact—like the eldritch horrors designed by H.P. Lovecraft, but sans the horror. More frightening than the heptapods is their ship, hovering high above the ground in vertical, a monolith of the unknown where gravity plays by a different set of rules than our own. Getting inside the ship plays with our minds and those of the team. The fear factor is significant, but the longer that Arrival plays, the more it shifts away from the heptapods and onto the demographics of humanity that do not include Louise, or Ian, or the Colonel.
It’s not that Villeneuve ignores the likelihood of dread and anxiety in being face-to-face with a pair of towering aliens that look oddly like a pair of hands dangling from the wrists of a larger, unseen entity. (In fairness, there is a glass barrier separating Louise and her colleagues from the heptapods, but that’s probably small comfort when you’re the one standing in front of it.) But Arrival blends dread and anxiety with wonder. It is beautifully made, though it does not suggest beauty: The ship suggests arboreal patterns with walls textured like bark, and the only source of light is the atmospheric chamber in which the heptapods house themselves, reaching out to Louise and Ian through their two forms of language. The first is aural, and to your ears it’ll sound like an elephant trumpeting. The second is symbolic, drawn in smoky wisps that jets out of their appendages like ink clouds.
Arrival pivots on the latter, and its commitment to detail in realizing the visual dialect is nothing less than impressive. But as all good sci-fi does, the film uses the heptapods to peer into ourselves. By sheer stroke of timing, it’s about global fracturing, global and national cultures split by mistrust, and enmity fostered through years of intercontinental strife. Villeneuve invokes the deep divisions of America’s presidential election without even meaning to, imagining both what the world would look like if those divisions were repaired and what it currently does look like as they continue to grow wider and grander. Arrival is the movie we need for the moment we’re facing, but what makes it stick is that it’s hardly interested in any of that, at least not directly.
You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is, perhaps, the best-made movie in Villeneuve’s filmography to date, a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Adams’ stellar work as Louise. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer; story by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Release Date: Nov. 11, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.