From the very beginning it becomes clear that Arrival’s primary focus is to slowly drive both the characters and the audience towards an important revelation. The film’s set-up is simple, asking just one question throughout its duration: What is the purpose of the aliens visiting Earth? This single question carries the entirety of the film, which could’ve been a recipe for disaster had it been tackled by a less talented filmmaker. But in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve, Arrival manages to stand out in a genre that commonly prioritizes iconic imagery over thoughtful narrative.
Whereas most sci-fi films involving aliens landing on Earth result in mayhem and destruction, Arrival is instead introspective and pragmatic in its depiction of the world finding out that we are not alone in the universe. Louise Banks is a linguist hired by the American military to help understand the aliens’ language. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly, they strive to understand the otherworldly language and writing that the aliens (called ‘heptapods’) are trying to communicate in.
Despite its grand scale, Arrival belongs in the so-called ‘lo-fi’ subgenre of science fiction, wherein ideas take front and center behind the flashy window dressing of CGI and bright technology. Director Denis Villeneuve deliberately emphasizes this by filming Arrival in a way that seems more appropriate for a crime drama than a science fiction film. This is not a crticism, because Villeneuve’s grounded stylistic choices along with Bradford Young’s cinematography only serve to make the film even more visually striking. The extraordinary spaceships and aliens have more visual impact because they exist in the same practical present-day world that we do, which highlights their otherworldliness.
There is also a conscious effort to stand out from the familiar designs of space invasion movies in the past. The heptapods in Arrival have more in common with the Cthulu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft than the familiar imagery of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and blockbuster films like Independence Day. To go even further, the heptapods also don’t belong among the horrifying psychosexual monsters that exist in the mind of H.R. Giger. In other words, Arrival focuses on the awe that comes with making first contact with aliens from outer space. They are suitably mysterious and remarkable, while never forgetting the potential danger that they pose to the humans.
But apart from the film’s visual and stylistic accomplishments, at the heart of the film is a gripping message that manages to be relevant at any point in time. Arrival skillfully uses the science fiction genre to present a compelling concept that, once revealed near the end, is breathtaking in its profoundness. The answer to the film’s singular question is enormously satisfying because it’s presented in a way that isn’t just important to the film’s story, but to the film’s characters and overall message as well. The film isn’t just concerned with shouting, “Gotcha!” once the answer comes. There’s a crucial emotional and philosophical aspect to it, which, once you realize it, is astonishingly powerful in its meaning and signficance.
This is where the film’s structure and direction truly shine, because the realization that you’ve essentially been tricked the entire time should feel cheap and gimmicky. However, thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s deliberate directorial choices all throughout the film, the magic act manages to be awe-inspiring instead of moronic. Most important of all, the surprise doesn’t overshadow the rest of the film. Although it’s been made clear from the very start that an unexpected answer is going to make or break the entire film, the journey of discovering that answer is every bit as important (probably even moreso) as the pulling of the curtain.
Arrival belongs among the select few films that manage to delve deep into the true potential of the science fiction genre. Thanks to the skillful direction of one of the most talented filmmakers working today, along with yet another riveting performance from Amy Adams, Arrival’s sleight-of-hand storytelling and emotional depth is a compelling experience from beginning to end.