It’s been hard to muster any kind of enthusiasm, or any kind of feeling besides grief, hopelessness and rage since Tuesday night. No matter what song I put on, what channel I flipped to or what episode of Portlandia I streamed on Netflix, I just wanted to melt into a puddle. I could not stop thinking about the next four years, and they mean for black, latinx and LGBTQ Americans. So when I sat down for my screening of Arrival last night, I was looking to just escape my mind for a minute; I wanted to turn off the thoughts so that I could come back fully reenergized to figure out how I was going to tackle fighting the racism, bigotry and intolerance that is now America’s President-elect.
Arrival is the escapist entertainment I was seeking. Even if it was for two hours, director Denis Villeneuve’s excellent sci-fi character study manages to transport and astound in every frame.
Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a lonely linguist who is recruited by the government to help aid in investigating the purpose behind a potential alien invasion. Several gigantic vessels have landed at seemingly random areas around the earth. They don’t quite touch the ground, rather, they’re suspended in the air but are still low enough for humans to enter and exit. The aliens themselves are blocked by a transparent surface (glass?) and communicate by spraying unknown symbols similar to the way squids squirt ink. That’s where Louise comes in; she’s recruited to decipher this language and discover the aliens’ purpose.
She is accompanied by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist, and Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) who urges the pair to work faster as pressure builds from the government officials around him, and other world leaders. Louise and Ian stress that the interactions must be handled delicately and sensitively to avoid a misinterpretation of what it is the humans are telling the aliens and vice versa), but Weber just wants results. The clock is ticking, and as China, Russia, France, the U.K. and the other world powers struggle to unlock the mystery, the pressure around everyone only increases. Villeneuve sparingly feeds us information, keeping us totally at his mercy. The film is shot from the perspective of Louise, much like a majority of Sicario was told from the vantage point of Kate (Emily Blunt). But where Sicario oftentimes jumped around between Blunt and the perspective of Benicio del Toro’s character, Arrival is totally Louise’s story; we only know what she does. We learn as she learns, we interact with the aliens when she does. And that is the well for Vileneuve to mine the film’s intensity.
The story is adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story Of Your Life by screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Sicario, was an intense rollercoaster ride that still has me squirming in my seat every time I watch it, crippled by the unrelenting pressure, failing to let up. Prior to that, he directed the grim Prisoners, a film about the abduction of a pair of children and its after effects on the families. While Arrival is, tonally, a step in a different direction, it continues Villeneuve’s streak of gorgeously arresting films. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot the incredible Selma) manages to capture the foreboding eeriness and sometimes awe-inspiring beauty of the world around the characters blended with heartbreaking montages from Louise’s mind, thoughts of her daughter Hannah who died too young. It is here where Adams does her best acting, letting her beautifully expressive eyes tell Louise’s otherwise untold story.
It’s no secret that Adams is one of the most-accomplished actresses working today. Many performers are unfairly labeled as chameleons, but not her; she disappears into every single role, managing to make it her own. Though the film itself was a total mess, she showcased this the best in 2013’s American Hustle, playing a con artist who shared her knack for transformation. If you had asked me before seeing this, I’d say that was her best performance. Now? Hands down, it’s Arrival. There is no ‘moment,’ this is a performance that is inexplicably fused with the film surrounding it. If I had to give a comparison, I’d say a close relative would be Sandra Bullock in Gravity, but even that performance is traditionally louder than this one. Without Adams, Arrival wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is.
It’s kind of funny how art has a habit of coming around right when we need it. That’s not to say that Arrival really addresses the shit storm that is America’s current climate. But there is an undercurrent theme of unity and the importance of globalism that rebukes the ignorant worldview that Donald Trump and the GOP have made an effort to normalize. It’s not extremely political or preachy in that message, rather presents it as a matter of factly as possible. “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,” one of the characters says in the film. Louise spends the entire preaching the importance of words, and how humans must be careful in using them when interacting with their foreign visitors (it doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines to uncover the true message). Her pleas more or less falls on deaf ears as the men around her ignore the power language holds, resulting in inflammatory language, rash decisions and violence.
Talk about relevant.
Oscar Chances: With the decision to have Viola Davis campaign in Supporting Actress instead, that frees up one slot in Best Actress. Adams is very well in the running; she’s an Academy favorite, and considered to be overdue for a win which puts her on the bubble with Meryl Streep and Isabelle Huppert. I’m not sure how the Academy will react to Arrival, but she is really the film’s best shot. Perhaps the film could find some passion in Best Picture as well if it’s a hit. Too soon to tell if this will be the Academy’s cup of tea