The release of Arrival comes at the perfect time to have the most impact in the U.S. Right after the ground-shaking election of 2016 when the country is more divided than it’s been in decades, this beautiful tale of humanity shines bright. Arrival subverts classic alien-invasion tropes to tell a story that’s more concerned with home-grown panic and hysteria than it is the threat of an invading other. The performances are powerful and the cinematography and editing fully encompass the story and mirror the themes, adding heaps of meaning with each decision, shot, and cut.
Although Arrival is science fiction, it plays more like a drama. In a world that looks very much like present day, twelve mysterious vessels appear in various locations across the globe. Amy Adams’ Louise Banks is a university professor and prominent linguist who is summoned by US intelligence to attempt communication with the alien lifeforms, dubbed heptapods, who captain the vessels. As Dr. Banks and her physicist counterpart Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) immerse themselves in their task of deciphering the heptapod language, flashbacks reveal a fuller picture of her life outside the assignment. A tragic story unwinds of her daughter who died at a young age of a terminal illness. Dr. Banks’ absorption in the alien language intensifies these flashbacks until she cannot ignore that they seem to be relevant to the cyclical way the lifeforms communicate.
Adams’ face tells most of the story. At times, her simmering panic is so perceptible that the audience can’t help but get wrapped up in the unknown fear, hearts beating along with Dr. Banks’. Her wonder and awe are equally transparent as she displays genuine amazement in her interactions with the heptapods. Director Denis Villeneuve spends a lot of time lingering on faces and prioritizing character reactions over action shots. This adds a layer of reality that keeps the narrative grounded and persuasively plausible as well as serves as a constant reminder of the characters’ humanity.
There is an unmistakable feeling of Kubrick throughout. In the wide symmetrical shots of the communications crew walking in their spacesuits towards the alien lifeforms, silhouetted against a stark white background; in the wide Montana landscape shots, dotted with the unnatural blemish of the US military base, angular and out of place; and in the alien vessels themselves, large gray slabs of stone, smooth and unfathomable. The lighting is gorgeous and contradictory. Bright, clear, natural light, contrasted with the dazzling, intense, and supernatural.
Beyond the overt and obscure sci-fi imagery, the cinematography adds a critical component to the storytelling. Dr. Banks and Donnelly work against the clock to communicate with the heptapods and the stakes grow higher as the world powers argue about the benevolence of the lifeforms. It is critical that they succeed in determining the heptapods’ intentions on Earth not only for the sake of the visitors but for the sake of all humanity. As they struggle to make sense of the circular, perpetual way the lifeforms write and speak, the audience is set a similar task to understand the full picture. Villeneuve’s compositions are purposely obscure, keeping information just out of view or specifically eclipsed. He rarely reveals everything, instead focusing only on a character’s face, or a close up detail or prop, allowing the audience to actively piece together dialogue and context clues.
Often a shot will highlight a character's face in the foreground and leave an enticing detail tantalizingly out of focus in the background. Through the language of the film, the audience is forced to accept that they won’t be shown every hint and detail, whether it is an alien body or an approaching vehicle. The figure or image may be revealed later but not when it is most critical and most wanted. This sense of concealment, of things just out of reach of our understanding echoes thematically throughout the film. Like Dr. Banks, the audience is given information they’re not yet able to decipher.
The editing similarly mirrors the themes of the film. The glimpses of Dr. Bank’s life with her daughter are kept brief and enigmatic, small scenes returning in different contexts in a cyclical unraveling of her story. Sometimes a memory is illustrated by a solitary close-up of an object, or isolated dialogue or background noise. This technique echoes the themes of obscurity and mimics the way consciousness work. The way a feeling, image or sound can provoke recollection and the way memories sometimes require a conscious focus to create a coherent picture.
Arrival summons empathy and understanding for the characters and the world they inhabit. The narrative exists in and all too familiar environment, on a global backdrop in which world powers are struggling to assert dominance while clinging to a strained link of common humanity. The arrival of the unknown threatens to snap the fragile connection of humankind and the stakes feel very real. Amy Adams drives the authenticity, encompassing honest and human emotions. The cinematography and editing engage the audience in a genuine journey of discovery, not unlike Dr. Banks’ & Donnelly’s analysis of the alien language. Because there are so many real global tensions threatening to break the common bond of humanity, Arrival is essential viewing as 2016 comes to a close, an essential reminder that humanity still has the potential to be truly great.