52nd Chicago International Film Festival Closing Night Film


There is a class of films within the science fiction genre that go out of their way to stress the human value of the cinematic equation over the spectacle of the fiction and science.  Those select films measure up to a bar set by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and not blockbuster roller coasters.  Such special films take a futuristic viewpoint and look at our optimism versus pessimism, our improvement versus our hubris, and, ultimately, our flaws versus our strengths as a species or a civilization.  Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” examines each of those dichotomies with invigorating tension and potent emotionality.

The less you know about “Arrival,” the better.  The film is based on author Ted Chiang’s multiple award-winning 1998 novella “Story of Your Life” and adapted for the screen by thriller specialist Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out,” “Hours”).  True to its distinction of human central core, nearly every observation and vantage point in “Arrival” goes through Dr. Louise Banks, one of the nation’s top practitioners and professors of linguistics, played by five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams.  Gifted in interpreting a wide range of oral and written communication, Louise, ironically, has grown sullen and detached from most human contact due to a personal loss revealed in her reflections and daydreams.

Villeneuve’s film twists her tragic personal anchor around an escalating global situation caused by the sudden appearance of twelve alien vessels across the globe.  Each are ovaline monoliths that stand at least five miles high and appear to hover motionlessly only a few yards above the ground.   Collaborating with the other guest countries, a guarded coalition of U.S. military and intelligence operations have descended on the quarantined Montana arrival occupying a valley of grassy countryside wrapped in flowing fog.  The senior military officer in charge is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), flanked by the parallel agenda of CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Weber recruits the help of Banks and the jovial theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to establish communication and interpret the purpose of this momentous, yet ominous, first contact for mankind.

That’s enough to wet your beak.  “Arrival” stays razor-focused on Louise, pushing the hints of the panic and pandemonium occurring outside of Montana to the background.  Stepping into the unknown object, the pressure and progress to forge a connection are amplified through her capability to understand and, ultimately, empathize.  No longer the best American actress under the age of 40, Amy Adams, now an unfathomable 42, moves up an age bracket and shows a parental side to her we have never seen.  Maturing and improving with every role, she brings stalwart intelligence matched with a hidden vulnerability.  Everyone else, including another Oscar nominee in Renner and a winner in Whitaker, trails behind and can only hope to keep up, a statement likely to come true again later this month with Tom Ford’s menacing “Nocturnal Animals.”

The entire picture is honed to unequivocal sharpness by “Sicario” and “Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve and his creative team, an impressive feat to be priced under $50 million.  “Arrival” is dripping with atmosphere that shadows all it can in the unknown.  The poetic and oblique imagery collected by cinematographer Bradford Young (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) is blended with a claustrophobically intense musical score by returning “Sicario” composer Johann Johannsson.  His arresting blend of orchestrational peaks, long piano notes, and ethereal chants stands as one of the best score soundtracks of the year.  The combined visual and auditory sensory experience stretches your eyelids, thumps your chest, glues you to your seat, and drops your jaw in astonishment on several occasions.  

To reveal more of the emotional and scientific obstacle course would take away from the engrossing experience to be had by “Arrival.”  This is the anti-”Independence Day,” so don’t expect a populist romp.  Instead, open your mind to a stimulating and provocative mindbender that may require more than one viewing to grasp and appreciate.  The trippy events unfolding out of Heisserer’s screenplay tangle the puppeteer’s strings and play with narrative and filmmaking forces few are daring enough, and smart enough, to wield.

LESSON #1: THE SOCIETAL RESPONSE TO EXTRATERRESTRIAL CONTACT-- In this film, the arrival of the UFOs is universally treated as a saber-rattling threat, one that tempts a greater show of force if necessary and sets off widespread panic.  Awaiting, and even begging, for instigation isn’t exactly a good first impression.  Think of people that knock on your front door.  99 times out of 100, they mean absolutely no harm.  Stand down and answer the door.  It’s likely an innocent question.  Give them a cup of sugar and make a new acquaintance.  

LESSON #2: YOUR MENTAL STATE THAT AFFECTS YOUR WORK-- The Louise we meet is not in a good place.  Her grief has hollowed her out and rattled her composure.  However, her mental state puts her in a place where she has nothing to lose.  She is willing to risk her safety and survival on this scientific mission knowing the greater implications.

LESSON #3: THE SCIENTIFIC IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE-- Communicative language comprises a trait of human intelligence that separates us from other living things.  Understanding the complexity within the form, meaning, and context of written or oral language is the fragile study of linguistics.  A misplaced letter, a mispronounced syllable, or an incorrect inflection of tone can be the difference between helpful and hurtful, positive and negative, or threatening versus non-threatening communication.