ARRIVAL is a thing of beauty. If you’re in need of a shot of hope, a movie that acknowledge’s humanity’s gross collective stupidity while holding out some possibility for improvement, it may do you some good.
Dennis Villeneuve makes beautiful images, perhaps tending to exploit shallow focus a little TOO much, but in doing so he uses it in unexpected ways, sometimes throwing the whole subject of the shot into an artful blur. Tricks with gravity also allow images to be inverted or tilted ninety degrees, calling to mind the “familiar object photographed from an unusual angle” round of questions from Ask the Family. Add smoke and other atmospheric effects, and a lot of discordant yet eerily beautiful music — including the de rigeur terror honks heard in nearly every large-scale sci-fi/psychological horror film in recent years. (I think David Lynch may have invented the terror honk as a film music device, in WILD AT HEART. Would be interested in earlier examples.)
We know how good Amy Adams is. Here she seizes the opportunity of playing a character freaked out and terrified for the whole movie. While Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY is specifically frightened of the exact situations she’s faced with (already nervous about being in space, she has to face cosmic debris, oxygen starvation, the absence of George Clooney), Adams seems generally nervous and lacking in confidence. Part of the job of a good dramatic screenwriter is to use situations to test character — so it’s often a good idea to put the worst possible character in the situation, forcing them to tackle their weaknesses and uncover their strengths. Or you can find the worst possible situation for an otherwise capable character, as with Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes. It gets more subtle when the lines are blurred ~
Adams plays a linguist called in to help translate the speech of a race of visiting aliens, the heptapods (we meet two, nicknamed Abbot & Costello). She’s an awesomely skilled linguist, faced with a problem nobody has ever had to tackle before. The aliens have two distinct languages, one for speech (various echoing rumbles and clicks and digitial didgeridoo drones) and one for writing (forms resembling a cross between a Rorschach test and a coffee cup stain). She also has to deal with politicians and the military, who don’t understand the task she has been set, or anything else, really. One can imagine her role played with a lot of acidity and aggression, because she has to deal with fools, and at times it’s even written that way, but by playing this woman as a character for whom that doesn’t come easily, Adams raises the stakes and makes everything more interesting. That’s what you want from an actor.
Also Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, very good.
Abbot and Costello are admirable too. Convincingly alien and strange, combining qualities of squids and hands, they are never not alarming. I wasn’t so keen on the spaceships — they are unusual and odd, and reveal different qualities from different angles, but are somehow not awe-inspiring. It’s a difficult brief. The huge craft of INDEPENDENCE DAY were impressive (in a terrible film) because they filled the sky. These long, bean-like things, which turn out to be scooped almost hollow at the back, don’t have any menacing weight. Their defiance of gravity puts me in mind of Magritte’s wondrous painting The Castle of the Pyrenees, but they’re not bulky enough so they crucially lack the sense of heft defied.
Is this a golden age of science fiction dawning? This one is clever. It feels very rewatchable, too. See it big.