Dennis Villeneuve has fast become one of my favourite filmmakers and one of those people who I’ll see his name next to a project and know I’ll be seeing it as soon as possible. So much so that I’m now looking forward to his reboot/sequel/whatever of Blade Runner, and I could not have cared less about the original one. Incendies first launched him into the limelight, and with his four year run from 2013-2016 of Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario and now Arrival, Villeneuve has proved that he’s no fluke and has a ton to say through a variety of film genres.
A common thread through all of Villeneuve’s films, and one that becomes abundantly clear watching Arrival if it wasn’t already, is that he’s chiefly interested in the human condition. How people react in increasing times of physical, psychological, and even extraterrestrial avenues of stress and how this informs them as humans. How these feelings are intrinsic to each person around the world whether you’re confronting family strife, emotional instability, high pressure job situations or just some damn aliens.
Arrival works because Villeneuve is so skilled at balancing everything this film needs to be, from sci-fi to a character drama to a philosophical study. Because this is a Villeneuve film he takes something standard (at least in sci-fi fare) like an alien invasion and doesn’t just go the simple route of seeing them lay waste to our society or set everything up for an epic 30-minute space battle, instead the film takes a step back and thinks about what REALLY might happen if aliens descended upon our world tomorrow. Villeneuve makes the reality of this situation shine so bright and dim that it makes the otherworldly aspects that much more starker, and scarier, because of what its implications mean on us everyday humans.
Amy Adams is the perfect vessel for all of this because she, like Villeneuve, is so skilled at portraying a wide variety of person for the job that needs to be done. She is believable as an expert communicator trying to decipher what these aliens are trying to get across, she is believable as a mother with grief, hardship and confusion seemingly informing her every move and she is believable as someone who isn’t just content with seeing things at face value.
The film features a clever twist on the idea of a “twist” where I even hazard to really even call it a twist. We find out that Louise’s visions she’s been having throughout the movie (including of her dead daughter) are flash-forwards and that the presence of these aliens is to reveal that time can be literally viewed as a flat circle, changing the idea of time.
When we first view the film chronologically we interpret what we assume are flashbacks, but only later realize that they are flash-forwards. Just as in the narrative film universe where the characters discover that they can view time as a flat circle, us viewers of the film now unlock that ability and retroactively feel the same experience of the characters and click into this mindset of seeing everything at once, even if we didn’t know it and were confused by it at the time.
I feel like it’s almost too lazy to call this a “thinking man’s” sci-fi film, and I mean it is, but it still feels like too much of an easy brush to paint it with. It works much like Villeneuve’s other films because it puts you in the situation because it feels so real and lived in no matter how fantastical, makes you try and answer the questions being posed to the characters in the film and actually provokes thought and emotion that sticks with you. Arrival isn’t interested in tricking you and making you out to be a fool, but rather taking a roundabout way in showing you how things you might have thought looked so concrete and definitive are often always anything but that.