I don’t think anything I write could really do justice to the incredible feat that director, Denis Villeneuve, and screenwriter, Eric Heisserer managed to pull off with their adaptation of the Ted Chiang short story, Story of Your Life. Where do I even start?
Do I start with the performances? Which are all outstanding across the board, by the way. With Amy Adams delivering what might be the best performance in her career, capturing the subtle yet deeply complex emotions behind her character, while still having a self-assured confidence that grounds the performance in a way that only someone with such a varied career like Amy Adams could pull off. She’s also supported by a great cast with the likes of Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and many others, all of whom are able to add to their characters by their mere presence, even when the material itself might not give them a whole lot to do.
Or do I start with the storytelling? Which is layered, rich and a perfect of example of set up, buildup and payoff. It’s a story that demands the attention of the viewer, but like an onion – it slowly peels off the layers until it finally unravels the true heart of everything that has been going on. Retroactively putting the entire film in a whole new context that makes it a supremely rewarding watch on multiple viewings. It’s also a great example of how to do hard sci-fi in a way that is smart and thoroughly engaging. But unlike some of even the most classic works of science fiction, there is an attention given to not only the contemplative headiness of the story, but also to the heart and the emotions that drive it.
Or should I start with the filmmaking? Denis Villeneuve has cemented himself as a master craftsman ever since Prisoners, and his skills behind the camera alone are able to take things that are maybe thin (yes, I still think Sicario isn’t all that great, sorry), and elevate them into something special. Here he brings his same meticulous vision – captured beautifully by cinematographer, Bradford Young – as well as his usual deliberate and methodical pacing. Sometimes the pacing does get in the way of some potentially more economic story choices, it still serves the bigger picture, especially as it builds to the finale. Villeneuve also brings his mastery of tension and suspense, which doesn’t deflate even as he goes bigger than he ever has before – global conflict. It’s the small details that he shines on in between the big moments, that allows so much of it to resonate even on the off chance that you see certain things coming or come across a moment that feels like it would sound ridiculous on paper.
Any lesser critic would say that Arrival is basically the smart man’s Independence Day, but that would be a disservice to both of these films and what they’re ultimately trying to do. Yes, both of these films involve mysterious space crafts hovering over Earth and the conflict that comes out of how humanity will respond. However, Arrival isn’t really interested in being just another dry, ponderous sci-fi, it actively flirts with blockbuster sensibilities, while continually playing on your expectations, taking in tradition blockbuster elements and putting a subtle twist to them. But it’s not a film concerned in being clever for the sake of being clever, it’s always in service of the story and the characters.
Arrival is truly rare film. It’s a studio released, big budget, science fiction film that contains little to no action and leans more on adult-oriented drama than it does on spectacle. Even more rare is the fact that it’s actually really great and executed as well as it is. It’s easily the most significant work of original, American science fiction filmmaking since Inception. I might even go as far as to call it a masterpiece, but only after seeing it a few more times, which I am all in for. It’s a beautiful, haunting and cerebral meditation on the nature of language and time; one that inspires thought and conversation long after seeing the film. It’s hard to really get into the nitty-gritty on the really deep thematic stuff going in Arrival without spoiling the crazy effective final act, so I’ll leave that for you to discover. But be warned, you might want to take some extra napkins on your way to the theater, you know, just in case. 90/100