**** Some might consider certain aspects of this review as being spoilers, though I tried to minimize it ****
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, Jeremy Renner as Dr. Ian Donnelly, and Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, is about how an elite linguist (Amy Adams) and an elite theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) go about asking the question of “why are you here” when aliens arrive on Earth, but to do that, they first have to figure out how to go about asking the question in the first place, hence the presence of the linguist. It’s as simple as that, really, without getting into spoilers, as this is a spoiler-free review. Honestly, I don’t know that, even if any of you wanted spoilers, I could or should give spoilers, because the movie is just so smart, from its premise to its execution, and the performances so subtle and pleasant, across the board. The pacing, editing, shooting, sound, and script — all done/written well, by the way — exude anxiety, and to the movie’s advantage. There is always a looming potential threat by way of an alien ship hovering above, doing nothing, but making noises every now and then, and the anxieties are further heightened by the design of the aliens. Remember the question of the movie because the portrayal of the aliens and their ships, even before the question is physically asked by any character, demands that specific question is asked, because, throughout the movie, the answer truly isn’t clear. I do not think it’s a stretch to consider that the writer, Eric Heisserer, really wanted to trick the audience into recalling other alien invasion and visit movies and let those memories of invasions and peaceful visits conflict in our own minds, adding to our confusion, and further adding to our anxiety throughout the film. Though I really should emphasize that this is done, if it is done, very subtly and without explicit reference, if any reference is even made. Though I do think that one of the disadvantages to the film is the flat color grading. All of the colors and their saturations and brightnesses seemed to be centered around one dull-gray color as their average. Now, this doesn’t mean that it looks bad. Most of the shots just looks like this frame from the second trailer:
While I think it serves to greatly heighten the anxiety of the audience, I also think it isn’t remarkable. I think that’s a trade-off the director made, deliberately. I’m getting really tired of every director pulling a Nolan and Snyder, and tinting their movies blue. That said, even with the anxiety this movie successfully imparted in me, I found myself enthralled. As somebody who studies mathematics as an undergraduate and who hopes to make it his career and is often asked why I bother with such an “annoying” field, well I admire Adams’ linguist unapologetically being in love with her field and being unshaken by the constant questioning of her field and its methods. More importantly, I am deeply appreciative of the way Dr. Banks entangles her passion for the field with her relationships with people, and the life she lives, in general. It is wonderful. In that sense, and perhaps in others, this movie is hopefully romantic in its outlook on passion and life. In an increasingly dark, brooding entertainment landscape, I can really appreciate some existential romanticism (not sound be pretentious). In that, and other ways, this movie is quite beautiful. But don’t get the sense that this movie is fully or even partly positive in tone. No, that’s just an overall attitude. But the message of the movie shouldn’t be what I base my review on, or else I’d have to consider the original Birth of a Nation to be a bad movie, because of how racist it is. As such, I should not consider Arrival to be a good movie just because of the positive message it sends and attitude it carries.
The performances in this movie were quite wonderful, though minimal. One might think that a fantastical or science fiction element like aliens would allow or encourage fantastical or over-the-top acting or theatric acting like that which you’d find in say a Broadway play or in the performances of great actors like Sir Ian McCellan or Patrick Stewart or Daniel Day-Lewis, but that’s not what one finds in Arrival. Instead, we have very grounded performances, even, as I said before, minimal, though this is not a bad thing. Dr. Banks has some real emotional baggage and with Amy Adams’ performance, the audience really does get the impression that it’s baggage she really doesn’t want to deal with it and somehow has a complex relation with. It’s a part of her past that she considers to be a gift that was taken from her. She doesn’t openly cry about that loss but internalizes it and the audience instead feels drowned by the tears that we sorta wish she shed herself. All this to the credit of the actress, I think, because the performance, given to a lesser actress, could have just as easily been a cheap attempt at making the character seem “stoic,” which would have made her an intellectual equivalent of a Mary Sue. By the end of the movie, the baggage is still there, there’s no sugary saccharine attempt to make it all better, but she learns to just accept it and look at it in a different way that doesn’t ignore the loss, but allows her to embrace what was lost to her. At the same time, we should look at Dr. Donnelly, who was advertised as being a sort of equal secondary protagonist, which I think is false. He is given similar screen-time as Dr. Banks and certainly he is the only friend to Dr. Banks, but he doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, nothing really noteworthy. He isn’t very well-developed, though he seems real, nonetheless, much to the credit of Renner’s performance. And I should include how I do appreciate a physicist being portrayed respectfully as a human being instead of some robot thing that just speaks emotionless jibberish and who has no empathy or understanding of ethics. Everybody else, including Whitaker’s Colonel Weber, is just there, but, like everybody else, Whitaker’s performance makes Weber seem like he could exist in the real world.
In the end, I truly think that this might be my favorite science fiction movie of all time.