Memory is a fickle thing. That may seem like a cheap observation here, considering the film review it’s introducing, but it’s a crucial one nonetheless. The way our minds categorize, process and understand time is nearly impossible to truly distill into an image. But Dennis Villeneuve – the talented mind behind Sicario – does an admirable job in Arrival, the latest in a recent streak of high-concept sci-fi fodder to make splashes during awards season.
In the picture, linguist Louise Banks, physicist Ian Donnelly and Army Colonel Weber attempt to make sense of the Earth-shattering revelation that we are not alone in the universe. As bits and pieces of the aliens’ reason for coming begin to cohere, tensions and camo-fatigued hackles predictably rise. But despite some brief forays into the anti-militaristic soapboxing typical of the genre, Villeneuve keeps most of the focus on Louise’s study of the visitors’ language and her battle with vivid and disjointed flashes of her daughter.
As in Sicario, Villeneuve excels at balancing the intimate and the awe-inspiring, giving the inexorable forces of nature at play their due while maintaining the personal, human heart of the story. Just as the lilting violin and jittery close-ups begin to veer into oversentimentality, Villeneuve tempers the mood with a breathtaking vista or orchestral crescendo.
But like the massive changes that we blithely accept in our dreams, these shifts don’t seem out of place while watching the film. Rather, they make it all the more immersive. We’re enraptured by Louise, willing prisoners in her head as we watch her mind fracture and churn about. And while it’s certainly not a revolutionary idea in science fiction, the notion that, the more closely one examines an alien civilization, the more one’s own humanity is thrown into sharp relief is played to perfection in her narrative.
That’s in no small part because of Amy Adams’ performance, one that clearly displays the value of subtlety as a means of expressing profound emotions. Her aching ruminations are more moving than any of the Oscar-bait soliloquies that dominate cinema now.
That’s not to say that the generally tight script doesn’t have some flaws. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer gives in to the temptation now and again to break up a more suitable silence with a would be show-stopping play on words, but the outstanding cast more than picks up the slack. And those flaws do nothing to diminish a frisson-inducing final sequence that I won’t presume to spoil for you.
And that’s really what Arrival is: one extravagant frisson-fest. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. It’s a delectable, chill-inducing portrait of memory, thought, the human mind itself, and all its gaffes and glories.