And so, begins my reviews of the best picture nominees.
Since his Oscar nominated thriller Incendies, Denis Villeneuve has gained worldwide acclaim with films as thought provoking as they are visually creative. In a few short years, he has elevated both the revenge thriller and the crime drama with Prisoners and Sicario. Now he takes on the Sci Fi genre with his best picture nominee Arrival. What starts off like the classic Alien invasion film becomes a low key, complex tale of communication, language and paranoia.
Everyone on earth finds their everyday loves pulled to a halt when they see news of 12 giant space pods floating high above various areas of the planet. Just floating there? Why are they here? What is there Purpose? That’s where Louise Banks (Amy Adams) comes in. A linguist professor, Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to translate the alien language in hopes of finding out their purpose. It’s not easy when their “writing” consist of inkblot circles. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks must find meaning behind each circle in hopes of discovering the alien’s motives.
After portraying the worst sides of humanity, Villeneuve is surprisingly optimistic. This film has an army surrounding a floating space pod and their first response isn’t to shoot it down? That’s pretty rare in an industry that’s all about shoot ‘em ups. Instead, our heroes try to communicate with the aliens in hope of figuring out their purpose. Turns out it’s not as simple as just asking them “what is your purpose on earth?” In an excellent monologue, Louise demonstrates the complicated translation process that comes with asking that very question. Hell, they need to know if these aliens even understand the concept of a question. Fortunately, they have the help of experts around the world to help them out. In another optimistic turn, the film has international governments working together for a common goal, exchanging results.
Not to say the worst side of humanity doesn’t rear its ugly head. There are concerns that the alien’s motives might not be so noble, as Weber recalls colonialists wiping out native tribes. Plus, there’s the growing paranoia over the alien’s motive, which starts to consume Captain Marks (Mark O’Brien). There’s no doubt you would see this kind of paranoia in real life, but it leads to an explosion scene that feels too Hollywood for this film. What’s handled better is the plot of countries withholding information. It feels way more like a realistic set of circumstances, leading to a creative climax.
Equal to the intelligent, low key writing is the stunning visuals. Cinematographer Bradford Young earns his Oscar nomination for the haunting beauty he brings into every scene. When Weber comes to Louise front door, Young creates an image of the helicopters lights cutting through the darkness across Louise’ home. But his work really shines the first-time Louise and Ian enter the space shift, along with production designers Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte. On the surface, the ship seems like a typical smooth space pod, but the inside is a sight to behold. Only able to get in via scissor lift, the team floats onto the gravity defying wall until they walking into a giant black room, face to face with a giant bright window. When you see the aliens, it’s breathtaking. No matter how many times the characters return to the pod, it’s always enchanting.
Arrival is a haunting, original take on the classic alien invasion movie. Through the intelligent script, the characters discuss complicated issues of communication, memories and fear without being jarring. Amy Adams brings out Louise’ passion for language, bringing us into her world. It makes me excited for Villeneuve’s next sci fi film: Blade Runner 2049.