When Arrival opens you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd bought the wrong ticket. While all stories need to start somewhere, where's the alien ships from the trailer? The dream-like vignettes feel very much like a Terrence Malick film. Handheld and shallow focused, these snapshots of moments invoke a painful poignancy. While other films would use this as a contrived character motivation, here it's a thread sewing the narrative seems together for the finale.
Similarly, director Denis Villeneuve takes the alien contact convention and twists it into something both understated and remarkable. With Sicario Villeneuve steered away from the routine violence and obligatory cautionary tale of the cartels and added something murky and uneasy to action/thrillers. Arrival does the same for the tried-and-tested first contact premise. 12 ships hang in the air across the world, each country attempts to communicate with their "shell" by entering through a door that opens every 18hrs. Even before Louise Banks' (Amy Adams) recruitment, the sighting of the crafts are just glimpses; grabbed news footage flickers before a TV is turned off or a spotlight moves across the shape at night, rather than monumental dockings over landmarks accompanied by the sky-tearing soar of F-22s. It stands to reason then that the first time we see a "shell", in all it's stark beauty, is when Louise does. Her's are very much the eyes that the story unfolds before. It makes for a subtle wonder that's both enthralling and grounded.
There's a confidence about both the choices Arrival makes and it's direction. Instead of exciting set pieces and prescribed musical scoring, the unfolding discovery of our alien visitors, their ships and how they communicate is patiently told with purpose. Yet in spite of it's matter-of-fact style of shooting and storytelling, the deliberate technique makes for some of the most tense moments in recent memory.
Not only does Villeneuve effortlessly re-interpret the genre, he uses it to wrap around socio-political ideas and philosophy. While these aren't laden or overbearing, it offers the audience an option to pick them up and examine them. It's not that Arrival thinks it's being profound, but if you wish to delve into the layers and add more to your experience you can. That being said, the glue that binds the Arrival's resolution may be a stretch for some. While Villeneuve and Co deftly ensnare you in emotional investment and carefully keep the grand idea simple, it just won't work for anyone with little suspension of disbelief or less than a passing interest in A Brief History of Time.
Even with the minimal hand-holding, it's rare that filmmakers offer such faith in it's audience and trust them to find their way. The result is a satisfyingly metaphysical take on a tired routine.
4* - Plan Time From Outer Space