Occasionally, a mainstream film like Arrival blows viewers out of their seats with concentrated intensity and an application of the usual tricks of cinema in such an unusual, uniquely original manner that the viewing experience becomes more of a waking dream -- a situation that I find myself in increasingly rarely these days.
Denis Villeneuve, the creative force behind Arrival uses the poetics of cinema to the maximum, or as much as is allowed in the mainstream, non-art-house pictures (for the real deal you’d have to go back to films like Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus from 1950 or the crazy, wonderful, 1966 feminist manifesto Daisies by the Czechoslovak filmmaker Vera Chytilová) to bring about his vision, based on Ted Chiang’s short science fiction The Story of Your Life, which explores what happens when extra terrestrials visit the Earth for the first time but there is no common language for communication.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks a linguist who lives a fairly solipsistic existence after having tragically lost her young daughter to an illness. Louise is recruited by the United States Army to decipher the language written by the aliens, a symbol based communication system that has mystified people across the 12 points on the globe where the aliens have chosen to hover in sleek black capsules that are as enigmatic as they are seemingly impenetrable (except when they want).
Visually, the film is stunningly beautiful, with a carefully designed minimalistic ethos that provides an unusual foil for the essential through-line of the film which is, underneath its sci-fi exterior, really an attempt at an ode to our own humanity, a trait that has been recognised by these visitors from far away, even as they have witnessed our war-mongering tactics with a limpid, unflinching gaze.
Denis Villeneuve, also the auteur behind Incendies (2011), a spectacularly humourless film that still won basketfuls of accolades, evolved somewhat with Sicario (2015) -- a tale of drugs and violence. Unfortunately, while there has been some progression, Arrival is another apogee of self-seriousness which has nonetheless been nominated for Best Picture.
Arrival is a stupendously accomplished film with a few flimsy loose ends, but it stands out from the director’s usual grim oeuvre because of its cinematic beauty, and due to the strength of the performances by Amy Adams and the wonderful Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whittaker who play a theoretical physicist and Army Colonel respectively. If you can take the 130 minutes of extreme solemnity, leavened a tad by Jóhann Jóhannsonn’s gorgeous score, then Arrival is your film of the year. If, however, you like the tongue in cheek that often goes with science fiction, this is not the place to look for that kind of goofing around – Villeneuve is way too arty for actual humour, which explains why no one ever even cracks a smile in a film that would have benefitted infinitely with a laugh or two.