First Contact. The idea that we will eventually be visited by beings from another planet has been the focus of movies, TV, books and radio for a very long time. These stories are used to inspire imagination and fear: “How would I react if this type of situation were to happen?” For Denis Villeneuve, he happens to tackle this question very effectively in his new movie, “Arrival”.
Twelve spacecraft have descended on strategic locations around the Earth. The government does not know why they are positioned as they are and the military have hit a roadblock in trying to communicate with the visitors. Dr. Louise Banks, played brilliantly by Amy Adams is called upon to address the communications gap. Along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker), they race against the clock to develop a translation for the alien’s language before the world’s governments declare war on their guests and each other. Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma co-star.
Adapted from the 2000 Nebula Award – winning short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Eric Heisserer (2011’s “The Thing”, “Lights Out”) crafts a unique tale of intrigue, humor, family, trust and perception. The story allows Villeneuve to use his stellar cast to work the narrative out to its fullest potential.
Much like the lead in Villeneuve’s “Sicario”, Amy Adams is presented as a very strong-willed, independent woman; someone who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and is willing to put her ideals and well-being to the test. This is displayed most effectively when she takes off her helmet to make more personal contact with the visitors, known as Heptopods. Renner, who is more reserved in this role then he has been in the past is reminiscent of Liev Schrieber’s Dr. Ted Fielding in “Sphere”: vocally deliberate in his concern and willing to go the extra mile in support of the main character’s theories.
This is the type of story that craves an experienced cameraman. Bradford Young, whose exterior work amazed and inspired us in “Pawn Sacrifice” and stunned in “A Most Violent Year” really comes into his own with “Arrival”. Most of the story features exterior and wide shots, where he went for a cool, bluish look. In an example, as we first approach the spacecraft, the Wyoming valley is shrouded in a rolling fog. Within the valley is a handful of cars and television crews along with a farm house, the word “Welcome” sprayed on the roof. The camerawork is meant to evoke the feeling of flight with a grand, majestic pan upward to look at the spacecraft hovering just above the valley floor indicating that something wonderful is about to occur. Young’s interior shots are just as effective, especially in Banks’ home. His camerawork of the anteroom on the Heptopods spacecraft is the real showstopper: black shale contrasts with the bright, smoky white atmosphere of the Heptopods.
Young’s work truly inspires an ethereal feeling, one that Meggie Cabral worked tirelessly to carry over into the visual effects. Cabral worked with no less than six different effects houses to bring stunning visuals to the screen. From spacecraft, to military aircraft, to the Heptopods and their language, the artisans really delivered the visual impact.
Equally as important as effects, is the sound. Olivier Calvert, Dave Michael and Michele Child designed the ambient and alien effects, adding a depth and realism to the onscreen action, strengthening the emotional elements. Jóhann Jóhannsson, a frequent Villeneuve collaborator adds the final sound touch with his score. From a siren call to electronica, Jóhannsson’s score carries the ethereal, yet scientific motif to its logical conclusion.
Bringing the entire project together is Oscar – nominated (“12 Years a Slave”) editor and another frequent Villeneuve collaborator, Joe Walker. The nature of the story dictated a certain type of storytelling allowing his talents to truly shine.
Villeneuve’s “Arrival” hearkens memories of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” and even Leonard Nimoy’s “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”; there is something for everyone. “If you could see your whole life, would you change anything?” This is the challenge that Villeneuve asks of us and it is answered in a most beautiful, profound way.
“Arrival” is Highly Recommended.