Updated: Nov 12, 2022
After coming off a a 3-peat streak of brilliant films in Enemy, Prisoners and Sicario. French-Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve continues this pattern with “Arrival”. A bleak, slowly paced and ultra grounded look at what would happen if aliens actually came to Earth; paired with a far more poetic sub text. Maybe in the style of French filmmaking, Arrival boasts a color palette only just removed from grayscale, making this Movie a given to be shot on digital Arri Alexas just before the Arri Alexa Mini would become incredibly popular for feature films. As much as it bores regular audience members, the slow pacing allows for the brilliant cinematography to adequately allow the viewer time to take it all in. I love how he chose to place the American UFO in Montana just as an excuse to capture gorgeous photography of the mountain ranges, a fitting contrast to the stark charcoals and whites that Villeneuve chose for his interior shots, especially on board the Alien craft where many of the most significant scenes take place. Even when choosing the lead actors, I think the Director may have even considered things like hair color just to be consciences of his color palette, never breaking mood despite visiting several different types of production styles, such as live news feeds and government officials on screens. I feel like if our lead actress had bleach blonde hair, it probably would have felt off brand in both the messaging and in the overall look. In my own career I’ve begun to pay more attention to hair color for both symbolic and cinematic purposes, and I’ve often been drawn to the way that vibrant red hair looks when accompanied by highly diffused, soft, white lights and heavy darkness cascading throughout the composition.
So of course, I love Amy Adams for this part. Not just because of her hair color, obviously her performance is more than competent by a veteran actor who consistently proves her ability. I respect Amy Adams so much because she’s confident enough that she can step into this role of an older woman, and this was really the first time I had seen her as anything other than the sexy wild card type in most of her roles. Most of her characters were more dynamic than that but regardless those character traits were part of that dynamic. She immediately makes it known to you that her character is immensely intelligent and level headed, without at all pandering to a stupid audience nor being pretentious about it, I also have to give Denis Villeneuve credit for this of course or I wouldn’t be a Director, I’d be an actor . But Amy Adams sells this character so well that for the rest of the movie you trust every word she says, because its a character you can really sense is smarter than you. That’s why it hurts so much when we found out not only was she lying about the kangaroo thing, but these memories of her daughter were also, in a sense, a lie. Not because they don’t happen, but because we were led to believe they happened in the past, since at this point all we know is that it happened at the beginning of the movie, we have not yet learned the language of the film, so we can’t understand yet what the film is teaching us, which is, an abstract thought, that time is not linear, it is instead more like a circle viewed from the outside. So as we learn this one theme, we can also begin to understand that this plot is not linear, it began with the end and ends with the beginning.
As I mentioned before, this movie seems to have an attachment to dark but beautiful tones, not only in the imagery and locations, but also in the musical compositions. Both the opening and ending feature Max Richter’s “On The Nature of Daylight”, this deep, low rumbling song that’s somehow also so elegant and so vibrant. Its a song that’s so good it shouldn’t be used in so many movies because it feels like it should be more privileged than that. Denis Villeneuve creates his own adult version of “Up’s” opening sequence, making grown men cry everywhere, and this score had a LOT to do with that. That’s not to take at all away from what Villeneuve and Adams did, that’s only to speak to how much Max Richter’s music accomplished, and I would argue that the Director’s song choose can credit him for that much, because picking the wrong music here could really fuck up this sequence. This trend of dark and beautiful extends beyond the cinematography, and the score. This is also a fair way to describe the theme’s finale “If you knew you were going to have a child, have about 15 years with them, but then they would die. Would you do it?” And while its phrased like something you’d get asked by one of your stoner friends, it is a sobering thought. If I knew I was just going to put my child through death, would I choose to have them? Every parent should know that one day, their child will go through death, and more than likely, they won’t be there for them. But If I knew I would have to go through my child’s death, would I choose to have that child. If I say no, then I’m saying I’d rather not have that child at all, than have 15 or so years with them. I grew up around multiple families who lost a young child in car accidents and cancer and it was rural Missouri so actually a lot of fucked up things happened. I often wonder if these are the questions that those parents ask themselves, I know they certainly never moved on from it, no matter how many times they changed houses and how many years it had been they always kept their daughter’s ashes presented as the center piece of their home. I hope films like this that have a thoughtful and poetic approach to these issues might even be therapeutic to grief sufferers. Very much a topic that this Director touched on heavily in Prisoners, his sophomore film.
Other themes I want to bring up include the theme of “Understanding history to predict the future”. Several of the more pragmatic characters use historical reference to justify a decision, and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. For reference, Forest Whitaker’s character uses the Aborigines to heed a warning to Louise that more advanced races have a proclivity to annihilate less advanced species. Also, Michael Stuhlbarg's character insists that the aliens are likely using a divide and conquer technique because that’s what Germany did to Rwanda and so on. I think this is a mirroring view to Louise’s epiphany, a way more practical look at the non-linear time concept that I’m sure Louise believes in by the conclusion, even believing in the theoretical ability of the mind to glimpse into the future, since we know future memories to be impossible, and physically traveling back in time to be impossible, so to is the opposite, looking in to the past is possible, and traveling to the future is theoretically possible, if a more advanced race were to give us the means of doing so, then perhaps we would be capable of merely looking into the past and the future, but not being able to travel to either, at least not beyond the distant future obviously. So the suspension of belief isn’t really that great, its there, its obviously just sci-fi, but it almost feels like it could be real. Very similar to many Christopher Nolan sci-fis with deeply rich and scientific basis for fantasy.
What I love most about Arrival is that its a love story, like an Edgar Allan Poe love story except its, you know.. good. (The masque of the red death was pretty good, and The Raven I guess) in that its a deeply dark and twisted love story. But it isn’t a typical high school, Nicolas Sparks bullshit romance that’s always between a young white man and a young white woman. This is about how much a mother loves her daughter. She saw those 15 or so years and remembers them in some level of detail and she decided ,”Okay, yes your life is worth living and it doesn’t matter if its brief”. But it goes deeper than that, because she decided to spend the rest of her life in pain for the decade and a half that she does get to spend with her daughter. And see, this is what I love about the Sci fi genre when its just done so masterfully like this. Hyperbole. I’d wait a thousand years just to be with you again in Futurama. Or, I wouldn’t let 15 Million light years keep me from seeing my daughter again in Interstellar, and in the case of Arrival, I would give up the rest of my entire life just to spend a little bit of it with my daughter, admittedly less heightened but still more than compelling in the principle of it. It required aliens and spaceships and nuclear war and everything else for this writer to express how much they love their child. That’s why films like this are so important to me, as a writer, because even if no one were to ever see it play out on screen, I want to be able to express important things effectively like this, which, I guess would mean it wouldn’t be enough to just write it down, I would actually have to make it and execute it as well as this. I don’t think you can have a good film without a good script, there’s some who would differ with me on that, and they’re all directors like me. Ted Chiang is a big part of what makes this movie so good and I don’t think he gets enough credit as a writer. I mean when you google a movie the information bar normally gleams right over the writer and jumps straight to the cast from the director. But Chiang really did something here with the plot and I’d like to think that so much of the messaging in the sub-text comes from his pen.
This is the kind of movie that only comes around once every few years, its taken me a while to realize it but it is absolutely brilliant. Everything I love about the Sci-fi genre, excluding everything I hate about the Sci-fi genre paired with an absolute fucking master Filmmaker like Denis Villeneuve. It puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders.