Movie Review : Arrival (2016)
Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian movie director who took Hollywood by storm with his movie Incendies, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2011 Academy Awards. His subsequent projects Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario earned him a reputation for "smart" and accessible movies that everyone can enjoy to some degree. While "everyone" is anticipating Villeneuve's revival project Blade Runner 2049 due next year, his new and most ambitious Hollywood movie Arrival almost quietly debuted in theaters last weekend. Based on a short story titled Story of your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival is somewhat of a polite "fuck you" to other mainstream movies of 2016, proving again that us Canadians have impeccable manners no matter what. I'm a big fan of movies that treat their audience like intelligent beings and Villeneuve's latest is just that.
So, Arrival begins with twelve spaceships inexplicably landing on different parts of our beautiful planet. Nobody knows who (or what) they are. Nobody knows what they want. Everybody is freaking out, looting stores and storing goods for the apocalypse. Another Saturday night on Earth. Expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theorical physicist Ian Donnelly (sexy hunk Jeremy Renner) are mandated to make first contact with the extraterrestrial pod that landed in Montana and establish dialogue with these beings from outer space. They are really good at their job and are making significant breakthroughs until communication starts breaking down between the nations where the spaceship landed. Someone got scared and shit hit the fan, so Louise and Ian need to figure out this seemingly impossible mystery before someone blows the planet to hell.
Arrival, like many other science fiction movies, explores the limitations of human knowledge and its repercussions. What makes it different from the others is: 1) its reflexive nature and 2) Denis Villeneuve maintains a self-aware dialogue with the audience throughout the movie that overrides the narrative. He keeps playfully challenging us by using images and symbols that challenge their conventional meaning. For example, Villeneuve uses the "light at the end of the tunnel" in the spaceship, which is a Judeo-Christian symbol for enlightenment. In Arrival, the light leads to a mystery, which leads to another mystery when solved, and * PSEUDO-SPOILERS * ushers another mystery that isn't solved when the movie ends. Denis Villeneuve plants several challenges to our knowledge/perception in the movie, but I chose this example because it addresses the movie's greater purpose, science nerds favorite subject: linearity.
The risky bet of Arrival is making a movie about the relationship between language and time that's both accessible and interesting to mainstream audience. I will try my best not to spoil the movie's plot here but it is complicated to discuss for reasons only people who have seen Arrival can possibly understand. It's not an elitist thing. On the contrary, it's better explain in Denis Villeneuve than anywhere else I've seen. Remember when everybody's favorite nihilist Rust Cohle said in the first season of True Detective that "time is a flat circle"? Everybody thought it was adorably cryptic and thoughtful. Arrival explores similar ideas, notably how our relationship with reality is mediated through our relationship to language, our tool we developed to conceptualize the world around us. Denis Villeneuve's victory is to have crafted a captivating movie that discusses greater truths and philosophical concepts when he could've simply split everything into a confrontation between good and evil, like the majority of mainstream storytellers do. Ted Chiang and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have their part to play in this unlikely success too.
Arrival has an unconventional narrative structure that WILL catch several moviegoers off guard. Denis Villeneuve flushes Joseph Campbell's monomyth (which a majority of big budget movies are based on) down the drain for two hours and it can be disorienting. Tension in Arrival is immediate and unevenly scattered throughout the movie, making it unpredictable. It's not an easy nut to crack by any means. It requires your active participation and won't feed you answers the way other movies would, but Arrival's message is ultimately empowering and enlightening. I've enjoyed it significantly more than Christopher Nolan's melodramatic space odyssey Interstallar. Denis Villeneuve's tenure in Hollywood is a breath of fresh air. His ideas are ambitious and push mainstream audience's boundaries. Arrival is by far his most ambitious project to date and I hope he'll keep getting bolder with time and success.