Narrative structures, across film and books, tend to have the responsibility of organizing events into a way that fits logic. Usually that logic is a subject to the rules of time. Irregardless of the format- whether non-linear or progressive, there will be “aha!” moments that make an attempt of reasoning all the pieces into a structured coherent story. In the excellent short story, “This is the story of your life” by Ted Chiang, the basis for the movie, the author questions the linear structure of time using science, linguistics and philosophy. Yet even with all the “twists” there is still a coherence.
In Dennis Villeneuve’s adaptation of this story, Arrival is less concerned with chronology, even more than the viewer would expect while watching. As a rule it usually helps to read literature adapted for screen, for context and a sometimes more intimate understanding of motivations. But with the case of Arrival, that rule is superceded. Both, masterful accomplishments in their field, could not be any more different in thought process.
This is due to many excellent film machine cogs. In no particular order of brilliance, there is the film’s director Dennis Villeneuve, known for excellent slow burning thrillers like Prisoners and Enemy, the latter of which got so distanced from any real pace I have still not gotten through. Dennis is uncompromising in his vision and the easiest manifestation of his directorial skills is in this movie which is so well blended, he actually achieves a director’s job which was to deliver the best possible versions of the music cinematography scriptwriting, editing, acting and score.
Before we get into more details, Arrival is the story of a linguist (played by Amy Adams) who is contacted by the government because Aliens have landed on twelve random locations all over earth. The government needs her to translate the Aliens language that resemble whale noises conjoined with eerie clicking. She is paired with a scientist, Ian (played by Jeremy Renner) who challenges her notion that language is the foundation of civilization (he believes it is science). Louise eventually figures out that the aliens, called Heptapods, on account of their appearance, are better off being written to than spoken to because they are distinct differences in the species words and speeches. Arrival is also a deeply moving self portrait of Louise the linguist and her life and times with love and family.
Johann Johansson a regular collaborator with Villeneuve composes these eerie juxtapositions of silence and sounds that blend so well into the story’s central feeling, which is one of consistent analysis. What does this mean, what do you want, do I know anything, what’s happening? The script, adapted by the brilliant Eric Heisserer, does the fine job of cutting through all the short story’s expositions which work for literature, but would have turned into one of those run of the mill scenes in action/disaster movies where characters walk and dole out their motivations and scientific nonsense till one of them pauses because a brilliant solution has just struck them. I digress. Instead Eric integrates the basic science and turns the rest into a study of Louise.
Amy Adams, winner of this year’s most unforgettable eyes is a great casting choice to match Villeneuve’s pacing. She speaks softly, she moves with no aggression, as do many of the characters in the movie despite rising tension. No other actress in recent mainstream memory has carried so much of a movie in her eyes as Amy Adams has done. And the cinematography lends itself very much to her inner workings. Bradford Young’s camera is generous and soft with Lousie’s memories while alternating between tones that are perfectly compatible with the music. Masters at mood setting. The roundabout cast of Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker and Tzi Ma make nice paddings to the story. Jeremy Renner as Ian should be congratulated for doing the usually counterproductive task of levelling himself so much he easily could be misunderstood for a plot device because of how he blends into the films scenery so that we can feel Lousie better.
Its not all roses, while Arrival may be compelling to many, there will exist a percentage who refuse to keep up as the movie expects us to. Stilted scenes, shots of flowers and hair, and a stubborn mysteriousness to the Aliens themselves hinder a small fraction of the experience for movie goers. Subsequent reviewing should clear up any frustrations.
The trailer of Arrival might have hinted at a well-paced alien disaster movie, but viewers should expect something levels more sublime than a two minute trailer gives away. There will be think pieces, and explanations and pseudo-meaningful conversations and many will seek Ted Chiang for answers, but the critical point of this movie which questions unsolvables like time and the ultimate question of what if and freewill will endure past the days of the movies disappearance from cinemas. See it quickly, and don’t forget to think. From the Sodas & Popcorn HQ, the movie gets a Popcorn and Soda rating.