TIFF Review: 'Arrival'

(USA, 116 min.)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Writ. Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Programme: Galas (Canadian Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF

One must hand it to Denis Villeneuve. The best Canadian director working in the movies today hasn’t lost his touch since moving away from his home and native land. Arrival marks Villeneuve’s third Hollywood film after Prisoners and the superior Sicario, and it’s both his biggest and best work since grabbing international attention with Canada’s Oscar nominee Incendies. The unique voice that Villeneuve developed in his Canadian work, however, infiltrates every frame of Arrival as the film evokes the visual power, emotional rawness, and speculative thrill of his previous works. Arrival has echoes of Enemy in the octopussy aliens that recall the spindly web of this 2013 mind-game and there are even shades of his gothic buffet Next Floor in the dark allegorical layers of this far-out world. Working on his biggest canvas yet, Villeneuve stretches his talents to their full potential: It’s the best mainstream film so far this year.

Arrival adapts Ted Chang’s short story The Story of Your Life as linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) makes contact with aliens loitering ominously around the planet. She receives the assignment from the military’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to make the tricky feat of interpreting extraterrestrial language with the aid of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Their progress, while shrouded in secrecy, advances swiftly as the aliens babble from behind glass walls. In search of a common language, Louise breaks down the fundamentals of speech and communication. Using a highly meme-able whiteboard and the building blocks of language, she makes contact.

Villeneuve crafts an eye-opening speculative atmosphere that takes place in the near future but finds its power in the action’s resemblance to today. The production design by frequent Villeneuve film teammate Patrice Vermette uses only the sparsest elements to create an alien invasion, while the snippets of extraterrestrial life that do appear in Arrival are bracingly impressionistic and the moody cinematography by Bradford Young accentuates the minimalist production design. A pulsating score by Sicario MVP Jóhann Jóhannsson fuels Arrival with a euphoric rush of adrenaline.

Arrival is singular sci-fi and smarter than the average studio film as it rejects spectacle in favour of philosophy. The film examines the elements of connection and communication that are forgotten in the digital age as Louise relies on old school methods and true, legitimate face to face dialogue to establish trust and build relationships. It’s a surprisingly analogue science fiction film as few digital conveniences drive the story, aside from a nifty tablet app that’s merely a practical manifestation of the groundwork Louise lays. As Louise communicates with the aliens and learns their language, she articulates a new perspective of life on Earth as the syntax and structure of extraterrestrial phonology exposes the limits of human expression.

Adams, who’s having a great year at the Festival with Nocturnal Animals, gives a performance of unwavering passion and strength as Louise. The star isn’t afraid to show the fear that screams in the linguist’s eyes as she enters the belly of the alien ship for the first time. Louise is, after all, human and fear is a basic emotion of our species. The adrenaline rush of confronting the alien species only fuels her quest for knowledge, though, and Louise becomes a quiet leader as she outsmarts every man in the department by relating to the aliens on a human level, using her eyes, hands, face, and every aspect of her being to break down barriers in communication, regardless of protocol.

Louise also suffers from a profound sense of loss as Arrival begins with a chapter from Louise’s life that defines her story. Following the tragic loss of her daughter, Louise needs to believe that something exists beyond the terrain of the Earth. These aliens offer some hope of an afterlife as all this expansive space houses the unknown. Memories of her daughter appear fleetingly as Arrival deftly begins to reconfigure its chronology to favour a non-liner syntax to match the alien language. The film evokes the memory of Robert Zemeckis’s Contact with Louise offering a kindred spirit to Jodie Foster’s pragmatic Ellie Arroway as she searches the galaxy for lost stars from her life.

Arrival, however, benefits from the limitations that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer put on the alien elements. They instead keep nearly all of the action grounded on Earth and find that the greater potential comes from withholding things from view. The marvel of science fiction is the power of the unknown, and Arrival keeps the audience guessing until its final moments until everything comes full circle. Arrival is a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

Arrival opens in theatres November 10.

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