As you may have noticed, 2016 has been an awful year for movies. We find ourselves now in December, and while I’ve seen quite a few movies that I’ve liked, up until a few days ago I didn’t love any of them. It doesn’t usually take eleven months to make me love a movie. Still, if that was the price I had to pay and the length of time I had to wait, well, it was all worthwhile.
The Plot: When UFOs land in twelve sites around the world, top-ranking linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought on board as part of a team to make contact with the American-based alien craft, determine a method of communication with the aliens, and, ultimately, learn their purpose on earth. She joins scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), and US military Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) in a mission that will have a profound impact on the human race, and on each of them individually, although certainly not in the way you’d expect.
That final phrase sums up Arrival as a whole. Based on its premise, on trailers, on everything you’ve seen or heard, this is not the movie you expect it to be. Yes, at its core, screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who prior to this had written almost exclusively bad horror movies) presents us with a thought-provoking examination of language, why we speak it and how, and the profound role it has in defining identity, both on cultural and personal scales. His script does not end there, though. He takes every opportunity to explore the concepts theoretical and existential through the lens of linguistics. He delves into the deepest corners of his characters’ psyches, particularly Louise’s, and imagines the full potential, mind-bending powers language can have. After all, what language you speak effects the way you interact with the world, more than with regards to what you call objects and ideas. For example, there is a tribe of Australian Aboriginals who all possess a perfect sense of cardinal direction, because those are the only directions they use in language. They don’t have a “forward” or “backward” or “left” or “right,” just the cardinals. Language has a much more profound impact on the human mind than people care to think.
The script to Arrival explores this concept fully, but to put these ideas on screen in a visual medium is another challenge altogether. Fortunately, though, director Denis Villeneuve rose to the occasion. Villeneuve is a talented director, it’s just that out of his last three movies (Sicario, Enemy, and Prisoners), I only liked one (the good one, obviously, Prisoners). Arrival reaches us as an unparalleled achievement, though. His mission as a filmmaker in this production is to give equal credence to the scripts two seemingly discordant priorities: existential concepts and human emotions. It’s something that Christopher Nolan didn’t quite manage to do in Interstellar and sort of achieved in Inception, and something that I think Rian Johnson totally failed to do in Looper (because he tilted too far in one direction at the total expense of the other). Villeneuve delves deeper, beyond the story and the characters, beyond the themes and ideas, into the medium itself. Arrival joins a rare class of films in which the thematic material penetrates every single element of the production, from script and performance to editing, cinematography, direction, and music (other recent examples of this that come to mind are Whiplash and Life of Pi). Villeneuve’s job as a director in this instance is to make sure that all of these facets cohere evenly to produce one complex body, a movie that is itself and only that, rather than the sum of its parts.
As long as we’re talking about those parts, though, I’d be remiss not to mention Arrival’s excellent cast, headed up by Amy Adams in what must be a career-best for her. This is Louise’s story more than it is anyone else’s, and the supporting cast performs flawlessly towards that exact goal, to support. So, Jeremy Renner’s understated but perfectly immersive performance is, in many ways, an equal part of Adams’ realization of Louise. Sorry, this is starting to devolve into gibberish. I think I’m in over my head with Arrival. Let’s just put it this way, in its simplest possible form: can you believe Amy Adams doesn’t have an Oscar yet? She’s been nominated five times, and will probably get another nod for this movie. Man, I officially gave up on the Academy last time, but for real, I’ll be pissed if she doesn’t win this time around.
Anyway, to summarize neatly in case I haven’t made myself clear: go see Arrival if you haven’t seen it yet. It has redeemed the cinematic industry in 2016, and easily ranks amongst the best of the decade so far. A movie like this is a very rare occurrence indeed.