By Dwight Brown (NNPA Newswire Film Critic)
Nearly 40 years ago, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” set the bar very high for sci-fi films that eschewed conventional all-out action sequences and garnered their strength from immense suspense, evocative visuals and mind-numbing mystery. “Arrival” is in that same elite category. Brainy. Intense. Scary. It joins a very exclusive club.
The source material for this endeavor is the science-fiction short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life,” which was published in 1998 and won a Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2000. That award is given out by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which verifies this story’s geeky pedigree. It was up to executive producer and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Final Destination 5”) to turn Chiang’s lofty thoughts on language, linguistics and cognitive science, as they pertain to the worldview of people or aliens in this case, into a cohesive screenplay that uses a very scrambled method of storytelling to disseminate the plot and characters.
Aliens arrive in massive floating vertical pods that land in 12 locations around the world. They actually float just above the ground astounding governments, the military and all who gaze. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a noted linguistics professor, is asked to head a team that will try to communicate with the interlopers. She is helped by the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and guided by the military Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), the latter being very intent on making a quick connection with the aliens or possibly annihilating them before anyone has ascertained why they’ve ventured to earth.
Dressed in orange hazmat suits, and looking quite strange themselves, the earthlings head into the tall cylinder day after day, hoping to communicate with a being that does not speak in linear terms, sentences or easily discernible patterns. Banks is having a tough time making a breakthrough.
The government is losing patience with the whole endeavor. It has occurred to everyone that the planet may suffer grave consequences beyond anyone’s imagination if a meeting of the minds is not imminent. Also, world leaders are antsy and are pointing fingers at each other, especially the Russians and Chinese. Banks: “I know something is going to happen.”
Chiang’s novella is not for the casual reader. It is complex, told in bits and pieces, in the past, present, and future. Heisserer’s ingenious script lays out all the plot pieces as coherently as possible, but it is the brilliant work and guidance by Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, the A-list filmmaker of the thriller “Prisoners” and the crime/drama/thriller “Sicario,” that takes this far-fetched and heady sci-fi story to another stratosphere.
Villeneuve turns the Banks character, who is tasked with a near impossible mission, into an everywoman that audiences will root for. Her exceedingly slow and minimal progress, day after day, becomes tedious and disheartening. By the time she makes minimal advances with the unearthly guests, it’s so dramatic it’s as if she has discovered the cure for cancer. The intensity of her attempted accomplishments, under the threat of the military taking harsh measures, is so nerve-racking at times your heart will stop, then rev up, then stop, then rev up, over and over again.
Add in the unfathomable visuals of an alien being that defies anything any viewer has ever seen and the sojourn Banks takes you on becomes so mind-boggling, even the most hardened sci-fi fans will be impressed. Credit production designer Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”), supervising art director Isabelle Guay (“The Revenant”) and set decorators Paul Hotte (“300”) and André Valade for visuals that leave indelible impressions. All the aforementioned will likely receive Oscar nominations for their tech contributions.
The weight of this film is clearly also on the shoulders of Amy Adams, who let’s the character revel in strengths and attributes that are often associated with mothering. Patience. Perseverance. Understanding when no one else can. The story is written and directed by men, but the themes are very feminist. Banks grapples with a force that is mightier than anything anyone has every imagined. At the same time she is dealing with an inner conflict she can’t understand that has to do with her daughter. That intimate seed is a very personalizing device that claws at Banks’ soul. Chiang created this dilemma in his short story, and it augments this very intellectual, science-heavy movie, adding a very sensitive and humane undercurrent.
The cast is filled out with Jeremy Renner as Banks’ partner and fellow decipherer who believes in her when all others have abandoned her investigation methods. Whittaker, as the sledgehammer over her head, adds to the blistering pressure of the situation.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s (Sicario) mesmerizing score intensifies the drama at every turn. Editor Joe Walker (“12 Years A Slave,” “Sicario”) is not afraid to let the footage run long enough to tell the complex story. Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”) lights crucial interior scenes perfectly, positions the camera in the most opportune places on the countryside that surrounds the space ship and makes scenes of the pods floating precariously above the earth look like ominous vehicles of mass destruction.
If you’re up for a sci-fi thriller that expects you to think outside of the box, you won’t be disappointed. Don’t be dismayed if you can’t grasp every plot point quickly and easily. The images you see and things you hear need time to ruminate and be savored.
At the end of two hours and five riveting minutes you may feel your brainpower has been tested. Don’t worry. That’s what mind-numbing, science fiction will do to you. That’s what “Close Encounters” did to audiences almost 40 years ago.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at DwightBrownInk.com.