Denis Villeneuve creates films that stay with you long after the credits roll. Now that his fourth major film has hit theaters, I am convinced that Villeneuve is the most significant filmmaker we have today. His film Arrival is a stunning masterpiece of science fiction, one of those rare films that is thought-provoking and a downright pleasure to behold.
Arrival stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor tasked with translating the language of aliens who have recently arrived on Earth. Arrival begins with a sequence depicting the life and death of Banks’s daughter who dies at a young age. Banks is invited by an army colonel, played by Forest Whitaker, to Montana where she enters the shell-shaped vessel of the aliens and encounters their language for the first time. The rest of the film follows Banks’s journey to understand the aliens language amidst rising military tensions due to the possibility that the aliens are dangerous. This is about as far as you can go describing the film’s plot without spoiling anything. If you have read this far, be aware that I am going to spoil many parts of the film in the rest of my piece.
I should give props to Ted Chiang because Arrival is based on a short story he wrote. Many elements of Arrival such as the design of the Aliens’ language come from Chiang’s short story. This means that Villeneuve does not deserve all of the credit for Arrival’s awesomeness. Much of the material is shamelessly taken from Chiang’s story but this most likely occurred with Chiang’s permission. Villeneuve does deserve credit for Arrival’s incredible visuals, the casting of Amy Adams and the choice to adapt Chiang’s story in the first place. Arrival is an example of what happens when multiple creative geniuses combine forces on one project.
A major source of mystery in Arrival is the aliens’ reason for being on Earth. This is the main question Banks wants to answer in her meetings with the aliens. When the question is answered, it almost happened too quickly to comprehend. The aliens purpose is to give the gift of their language to humanity because learning the language enables the user to see the past and future. The aliens claim that they will need humanity’s help in the future so that is why they are giving humanity their language. This plot point is unfortunately not fleshed out enough in Arrival. There is no discussion of what this means for anyone other than Louise Banks. I wish that the movie had at least made an attempt to explore the larger implications of a language that enables the user to see the future.
Arrival is a much more personal movie than it appears. While the stakes are large, the movie ignores those stakes in favor of the smaller stakes related to Dr. Banks. Ultimately its unclear why the movie chose to focus so heavily on her story when greater possibilities were available. Despite this problem Arrival is so far my favorite movie of 2016. The film achieved what few other could. It kept me transfixed for the entire time I was in the theater. At this point it is safe to say that this is Villeneuve’s specialty. His ability as a filmmaker is unparalleled in today’s cinema landscape.