ONE OF THE most tedious things you can be told upon leaving a film screening is that ‘the book is better’, and it’s always excruciatingly clear that whichever smug bastard says this does so only to convey that they’ve read the book and are therefore a literary, intellectual type of person. That said, when it comes to Arrival, the book––or rather the story––on which it’s based is better.
It’s a point that isn’t completely irrelevant because in comparing Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life to Denis Villeneuve and Eric Heisserer’s adaptation you see Arrival’s (admittedly few) shortcomings. But Arrival is, nevertheless, brilliant, and puts beyond doubt first that Amy Adams is one of the greatest actresses of her day and second that the sequel to Blade Runner is safe in the hands of Villeneuve, who has yet to make a poor film.
Arrival puts beyond doubt first that Amy Adams is one of the greatest actresses of her day and second that the sequel to Blade Runner is safe in the hands of Villeneuve, who has yet to make a poor film.
The film opens to the beautiful electro-acoustic music of Max Richter, and a series of flashbacks in which the linguistics expert Louise Banks, played by Adams, plays with her daughter, who dies in adolescence from cancer. In the present, twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft appear across the planet, prompting the U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to ask Banks to form a team with the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and try to decipher the alien language so, ultimately, they can find out why the extraterrestrials have come to earth and whether they pose a threat.
It will appease science-fiction skeptics to read that that the film is not about aliens: it’s about Louise Banks and, by extension, her relationship with and memories of her daughter. Arrival, therefore, belongs to Amy Adams and she turns in an Oscar-worthy performance that for large tracts of the film is not only purely physical, but purely facial, because she is made to wear a hazmat suit during her meetings with the aliens. The focus on Dr. Banks is so intense that Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, who are given second and third billing respectively, are nearly demoted to extras; nevertheless both of them––particularly Renner––turn in excellent supporting performances.
Amy Adams’s performance, then, is necessarily minimalist, and minimalism is a theme that runs through the film. The score, by Jóhan Jóhannsson, rarely moves away from a discordant, uncomfortable hum, and the representations of the alien spacecraft, the aliens themselves, and other sci-fi elements such as zero gravity are tasteful and restrained, proving––and it’s one of Villeneuve’s achievements––that to see ‘the monster’ (or in this case, the monsters) is not to un-suspend the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, which plays at the beginning of the film and which many viewers will remember was used extensively in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Shutter Island, is a subtle evocation of vagueness and otherworldliness. (In fact, this is one of the distinctive features of Richter’s music: it’s one of the reasons that The Haunted Ocean played during the now-famous dream sequence from Ari Folman’s award-winning Waltz with Bashir.)
Sci-fi elements such as zero gravity are tasteful and restrained, proving––and it’s one of Villeneuve’s achievements––that to see ‘the monster’ (or in this case, the monsters) is not to un-suspend the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
But any departure from this theme of minimalism, which incidentally is a quality of Ted Chiang’s writing and storytelling style, is jarring. Outside of the main plot of Arrival described above is a secondary thread relating to the developments at the other spaceship sites and what is going on across the United States, and not only is it unnecessary but it’s harmful to the main storyline. It seems that screenwriter Eric Heisserer felt that the plot needed more drama, but the drama is plainly artificial, and it takes up screentime that might have been better used explaining key concepts such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, semasiography and the process of learning a new language from scratch.
Arrival is, nevertheless, smart and sophisticated, genuinely thought-provoking and deeply moving. It’s the sort of film that will re-kindle a love of cinema in the hearts of those who have been worn down by a seemingly endless string of vacuous superhero films, sleep-inducing horror flicks and big-budget, franchise trash.