Director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) is so brilliant at shooting a beautiful scene and setting a mood that he gets away with a lot, narratively. In Sicario he never questioned the idea that a street drug dealer in Mexico with five sub-machine guns pointed at him would commit certain suicide trying to shoot back. They’re crazy drug dealers! Plus them dying in a hail of bullets will look really cool! And damned if it didn’t look cool. It looked so cool most of the audience probably didn’t question it either. The most intense action sequences since Heat will make you overlook little lapses in logic like that. And Sicario was a step forward from Prisoners, a 153-minute movie about vengeance that never really questioned the idea of vengeance.
Villeneuve’s latest, Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer (based on a story by Ted Chiang), is another film that’s more probably more clever than it is creative, but it’s also another leap forward for Villeneuve, one step closer to exploring concepts rather than simply arranging them. Just as impressive, his fastball’s getting faster even as he expands his repertoire. Not only is Arrival his most thoughtful film, it’s probably his most competently crafted, even for a guy who makes his bones being cinema’s most competent craftsman.
Still, on a lot of levels, Arrival is more a smart arrangement of existing alien movie narratives than it is a new one. The aliens arrive in cool ships, which utilize technologies our human brains can scarcely fathom, and when the government needs someone to communicate with them, they tap the unlikely, lonely academic still reeling from the loss of a child, in this case played by Amy Adams. Could this experience with the aliens help heal old wounds from her personal life? To be sure, the dead kid flashbacks eventually come to something more, which is part of why I think Arrival is Villeneuve’s best to date. But the problem with retroactively defying a trope is that while we’re watching it, it still feels like the trope. You think “Aw jeez, not another dead kid flashback,” and the movie says “Well what if it wasn’t a dead kid flashback? Would that make it better?”
It does, but I also can’t go back in time to reexperience it. Mostly though, Arrival serves up the familiar with such a flourish that you don’t really mind. The general idea of wise, benevolent aliens who come to Earth bearing gifts that we’re too fractious and war-like to receive is pretty old and dull at this point, but like virtually all of Villeneuve’s movies, Arrival is triumph of execution, not of concept. He piles cool trick on top of cool trick, starting with Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams’ character, the linguist) and Ian Donnelly’s (Jeremy Renner’s character, the physicist) entry into the spaceship, which, thanks to an alien gravity control device, turns the scene into a dazzling exercise in shifting perspective. The aliens themselves turn out to be massive, didgeridoo-voiced elephant trunk things, who hang out in smoky rooms and squirt complex ink sentences with their squid hands. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen aliens who communicate via inky smoky ring blown from squid hands, that’s quite a touch. The beauty of Villeneuve is that he’ll take a familiar concept like alien first contact and treat it more like a designer’s white box challenge than a creative crutch.
The most inventive element of the film is that the plot revolves around a linguistic challenge. The aliens communicate in these inky smoke puffs, which are not only cool to look at, but, according Dr. Louise Banks (perfect Amy Adams character name), they’re an example of “non-linear orthography.” As in, their sentences have no beginning or end, but rather exist as a kind of infinity circle or ouroboros snake. It’s a beautiful plot device because it can’t entirely be fathomed, so we just have to take the movie’s word for it, an element of the time travel paradox similar to Doctor Strange. It’s also a retroactive explanation of one of Dr. Banks’ lines at the beginning of the film, “There are certain days that define your story beyond your life.”