The arrival of Arrival in American theaters couldn’t have come at a more poignant time just after the most contentious and draining of elections. In cinema there has always been a fine line between entertainment and art, and the greatest of films are often rendered great through the cultural lens through which they are viewed. I (and I’m sure many others) might read too much into the fact that the alien’s arrival on Earth occurs on an otherwise calm, fine Tuesday in Autumn. Fear and rioting ensues.
In steps a linguist (Amy Adams) and a scientist (Jeremy Renner) to help the US Government figure out why the aliens are here…and most importantly, do they mean us any harm? One of the central themes of the film is the importance of communication…cutting through language barriers to find common ground and how we have to work together to avoid disaster. One of the other central themes of the film is that the most common of grounds might be grief. It’s all at once timely, hopeful and a little bit sad.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s melancholic and seemingly always tracking camera (the opening shot scans under a dark ceiling stretching out toward the dull light coming through a window overlooking a beautifully serene lake) sucks you in from the get-go while Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” plays on the soundtrack before Amy Adams’ philosophical and heartbreaking voice-over begins. I breathed a deep sigh (of relief), as I knew instantly we were in the hands of a master at the height of his craft. Richter’s music has been used in many films before this, but here it sounded new. When not employing the Richter theme, master of minimalist tension Johan Johannsson seeps under the celluloid skin with nerve-shattering precision. Meanwhile, cinematographer Bradford Young’s use of light and color compliment Villeneuve’s probing eye. And all three – artist, musician, and cameraman – work cinematic wonders in those slow-burn scenes of our wondering wanderers wandering down that dark tunnel to the light…and the otherworldly conversation at the end.
In talking about the film, one would be remiss to leave out talk of Amy Adams’ performance. Playing a strong, smart, occasionally exhausted, but ever curious woman who exercises free will in the most poetic of ways, Adams has been gifted with what might be the role for which she will always be remembered. Her emotions are our collective emotions, and she brings us solace in her choices and the fate of humankind.
Yes, Villeneuve plays with us here, as he always does, but the cynicism he normally employs to pull the rug out from under an audience is muted by the innate hopefulness of the Ted Chiang short story upon which the film is based. There’s a twist (of a heady temporal kind) that won’t be revealed here. My advice: see it on a clean slate and with an open mind. And open-mindedness is another of the film’s layered themes.
Would Arrival have resonated with me as much as it has, had I seen it last week or last month? One of the questions the film dares to ask is would we still live our lives the same way if we knew exactly how it would end? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. All I know is I saw Arrival when I did, and when I watch it again in the future, its haunting imagery, sounds and emotions will always take me back to this place and time, which hopefully then can be viewed as just another moment we endured and moved on from after we finally learned to talk to the other side and find our common ground.
Arrival, my friends, is true art. Enjoy it while you can, for it’s so fleeting.
Written by David H. Schleicher