First of all, Arrival by the great Denis Villeneuve is further proof that maybe Canada isn’t so bad if people like this director come from there.
Here’s the poster:
Shoot, hang on, here it is:
Crap, that’s not it either. One more time:
There we go. So a little bit about the movie first. Aliens arrive. Amy Adams is a linguistic genius. Army wants her to translate alien-speak. Begin drama. Tl;dr:
This one is definitely a culmination of ideas that Villeneuve has explored in his other films, especially family. Prisoners, Incendies and even Enemy explore different aspects of family, but somehow when Villeneuve goes to sci-fi he ends up being more intimate in the exploration of love between humans than in any of the others.
Arrival is also a little different for Villeneuve since it is an adaptation and this time I have read the story on which the film is based. The core idea is maintained, but Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” doesn’t have almost any of the dramatic conflict the film does. So if you’ve read the story and thought “How is that going to possibly make for compelling cinema?” as I did, don’t worry. Eric Heisserer added a lot to Chiang’s base story and it all feels very organic the way it’s written. The trailer plays up the moments when the various superpowers are in disagreement, and indeed those moments are intense, but we are with Amy Adams the whole time.
Which brings me to one of my favorite things about Arrival. We really do feel what Amy Adams feels throughout the film. This is because of two things: Amy Adams is a phenomenal actress; Bradford Young shot the hell out of this movie. I was really bummed when I found out that Roger Deakins wasn’t shooting this one. He really elevated Sicario in my opinion. Luckily, Bradford Young was there to fill the Deakins-sized void. Just look at the work he did on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and you’ll have total faith in him, too:
The depth of field in the shots are so shallow that a character’s face can be in focus while the hand they extend away from their body is totally fuzzy. This separation between the subject of the shot and everything else creates the intimacy I mentioned before, especially if there’s something closer to the camera that’s not the subject. For instance, early on in the film, Amy Adams’ character is playing with her daughter. Adams’s back is to us, but she takes up a large portion of the frame. The daughter is in focus, yet she’s more distant. These moments force us to focus only on the one thing we can really see, much like we can often only focus on one thing at a time. Metaphor!
Jóhann Jóhannsson is similarly performing at the top of his game on the soundtrack. Except for the opening and the closing of the film which, for some reason, both play “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter in its entirety. I love that piece and I love Richter as a composer, but I don’t think it necessarily fit. I think that was an instance of the director having his heart set on a certain piece of accompanying music but I would love to have heard how Jóhann Jóhannsson would capture the emotion. As I mentioned before, there are tense bits. Really, though, they wouldn’t be nearly as tense without the score he creates to run under those scenes. And then there’s the moments where the score is absent. Those, to me, are always so much more important to get right than when the score is present, and this movie does that so well. That means mad props to the director but also the editor: Joe Walker.
I think my biggest complaint about the film stems from a line that’s in the trailer. One of the trailers anyway. At one point someone says that maybe the aliens are trying to get us to fight each other, then Amy Adams says maybe they’re trying to get us to work together for once. That’s not exactly the epitome of subtlety, so it irked me a little bit. But the film doesn’t dwell on it because, while that aspect certainly is part of the “message” of the film, it’s much more about language and familial love.
I realize I haven’t talked too directly about the plot of the film and that’s because I don’t want to be too spoiler-y with what I say. I’m hoping that what I have said is enough to convince you that you should see it. Because, in case I haven’t said it already, you should.