Amy Adams plays linguist Dr. Louise Banks, hired by the military to communicate with aliens who have just landed on Earth. Who are they? Where do they come from and what is their purpose? As an army man tells a scientist near the beginning of the film: "You'll see for yourself soon enough." Arrival is adapted from short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, although significant alterations have been made, mostly in the aftermath light of Nolan's Interstellar. It's easy to draw comparisons there, but Arrival feels closer to Malick's Tree of Life in its scope, visual cues, and philosophy.
Villeneuve is a master of mood and wielding visuals in complete subservience to tone. More than any other director, he is able to coerce an audience to take an active part of watching a film. Like the slow zoom-ins that encroach so many of the scenes of Arrival, we're gravitationally and irrevocably drawn in. There are so many scenes that involve simple actions where he's able to racket tension, such as the first time Banks and the team ascend into the alien spaceship. The whole scene has no frills and yet we find at the end of it that we've been holding our breath just to see characters take a few steps. Yet just a few minutes later, we find that a whole scene has been omitted and we've cut forward in the narrative.
That play with time is appropriate in a film that plays with temporal reality, as Banks inhabits other events of her life even as she moves forward with struggling to communicate with the aliens. Villeneuve is as meticulous with framing as he is with his pacing. We don't see the alien spacecraft until far into the film and even then, it's not given its full breadth, as if the frame isn't large enough to hold the massive mystery it represents. Physical space is as important as temporal space here. Cinematographer Bradford Young favors the use of a Zeiss Super Speed Lens which allows for shooting with low light but also forces a shallow depth of field, symbolizing how limited the human vision is. In one seemingly intimate scene between Banks and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), we see the two placed at the far edges of the screen, the span of space between them showing the expanse of understanding that separates them.
Speaking of Young, it's a tall order to follow Roger Deakins from Sicario, but if Young doesn't at least receive an Oscar nomination this year, I'll eat my hat. Although more recently known for his work in Selma and A Most Violent Year, Arrival is more similar to his Ain't Them Bodies Saints which contends with liminal human immortality. Young calls his combination of digital cameras with vintage lenses here "quilting", not only because of the mixed media but also because of the idea of conveying history in his storytelling. The Alexa XT gives an almost procedural look to Banks' scenes with the aliens, throwing faces into harsh relief and dominating with cool colors, emphasizing an isolation and melancholy. In contrast, Banks' scenes with her daughter are shot with an Alexa M, a lighter device that allows for a hand-held, natural warmth. The opening scenes are incandescent, those moments given more strength and meaning because of juxtaposed parallels. But far more than the technicality of what Young does, is the emoting.
Although all of the actors are superb, this is Amy Adams' film from start to finish. It is her character's story, her embrace of action, and the beauty of her emotion that make Arrival what it is. Her face tells a story even more than the script does, and it's easily some of the best work she's done. Johan Johannsson creates yet another achingly beautiful score, with music that is both present and completely in service to the story.
Arrival is a thing of light and hope after the brooding intensity and oppressiveness of Sicario. As Banks asks the aliens what their purpose is here, we come face to face with our own questions of human mortality and meaning. And in the face of current events, it's impossible not to feel how urgent this film and its themes of communication are. There is a vulnerability necessary to move forward -- a compassion for what we may not yet understand and an acceptance of sacrifice for gain.