No movie of recent times has absorbed me as much as Arrival. Every time I think of Arrival, I can feel its essence. A slide show of the visuals plays through my mind, its theme of empathy tugs at my heartstrings, and I am left pondering about its commentary on humanity at large.
Arrival plays out like a slow-burning melancholic dream with lingering effects. The original soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and especially the use of Max Richter’s ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’, help create the mood of the film. Another element that wonderfully adds to the mood, is the sombre colour palette made from shades of grey and toned colours. Most importantly, it is director Denis Villeneuve’s composition of individual scenes, and treatment of the story as a whole, that helps tell a human story unlike any other sci-fi thriller. After all it is rare to come out of a sci-fi film not seeing flashy gadgets and gizmos inside a space ship, and having only a faint idea of what aliens look like.
Films are visuals strung together, and what would Arrival be without Bradford Young’s cinematography? Young creates an intimate world through his lenses. In the personal moments he closely frames the actors and uses shallow depth of fields, making the actors stand out from the background, effectively highlighting emotions. To emphasize on the mood, Young sets up his scenes with low lighting and low saturation; something he skillfully repeated in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us. My personal favourite camerawork is in the scenes Louise (Amy Adams) watches her daughter grow up. The choices in cinematography makes the viewers feel as though they are living Louise’s life with her, looking over her shoulder as it plays out.
Arrival is Louise Banks’ story, and Amy Adams is the hero every movie deserves. It is a role that requires restraint, and her performance is sublime. Her face is like a canvas depicting Louise’s true emotions in every scene. Like a real person, her body language varies with her setting; one can see the difference when she is with her colleagues, with her daughter, or with the Chinese General. I feel time travel movies offer a trap that actors often fall into; the trap that results in them looking confused and carrying a singular expression through the movie, but Adams is too remarkable an actor to be deceived by such traps.
The reason Arrival is so effective in the story it is trying to tell is Denis Villeneuve’s skilful direction. Apart from assembling a talented team, I think his biggest achievement is in getting this talented team to focus on telling a human story. This is evident from the many interviews where the cast and crew are asked about challenges of working on a sci-fi film with CGI aliens and a spaceship, and the response unanimously is that the challenge was to focus on telling a mother’s story. As a result, the typical sci-fi elements do fill up the frames, the dialogues, and the story telling, but never as a central concept; never in the foreground.
In Arrival, Villeneuve and the screenwriters (Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer) create an authentic world of linguists and scientists. The film has a very believable scientific setting, while not relying on technology and meaningless technical jargon to service the plot. Villeneuve also embellishes the film with delightful symbolism, like the way the concept of the circular nature of time is emphasized by the circular-like language of the aliens, as well as by having similar opening and closing scenes.
The movie makes poignant observations about humanity and our collective behaviour. The villains of Arrival are our tendencies to feel threatened by anything foreign in our environment, our conditioning to weaponise knowledge, and the tedious us-versus-them race that all societies seem to be fervently running. When Louise replaces her fears with compassion, she is not only able to defeat these villains, but it also leads to the opening of wonderful new horizons for humanity. I feel that is a beautiful message for the viewers, one that holds true especially for the times we live in.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.