Telluride 2016: Villeneuve's 'Arrival' is Intelligent Sci-Fi for the Times
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2016
Before returning to our condo and beginning this review, I stopped for a few minutes and stared up at the stars. Here in Telluride you can view them so clearly, but this time I felt a renewed sense of wonder after emerging from one of the most intelligent alien sci-fi movies since Contact. It's a major milestone in sci-fi, the next step in the non-stop evolution of this exciting genre of cinema. Arrival is a phenomenal film, an extremely intelligent yet captivating story brought to life in the most invigorating way by director Denis Villeneuve. It's one of those brilliant movies that actually makes you appreciate all that sci-fi can offer, making you think intensely about life, the choices we make, and what place humans have in the universe.
Arrival features a screenplay written by Eric Heisserer, and it's easy to tell his heart in sci-fi and this is one of the best scripts he's written so far. Right from the start, you're instantly pulled in to a story about a human being - spending the next two hours learning what it means to be human and learning that maybe there's more out there than we think. I love the way the script never stops to answer any questions, and it doesn't cut to moments of exposition to explain what's going on. We follow Amy Adams, one of the leading experts in linguistics, who is brought in by the military to help communicate with aliens who have landed in 12 different ships at various location around the world. What she experiences, we experience, and it's that intimacy that makes this film even more personal. The way it unfolds will make true sci-fi nerds so happy.
Denis Villeneuve takes Heisserer's script and makes it believable, makes it feel even more real and instills it with emotions that make the cinematic experience so exhilarating. Villeneuve is a visual master and he proves that once again, with every sleek shot being perfectly composed thanks to his very talented director of photography Bradford Young. So often I was wondering how they pulled off these shots making it seem so easy. Every reveal in the film, from the unveiling of their arrival to the aliens to every other shot of the ships, is beautifully conceived and perfectly executed. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is haunting and enchanting, adding even more depth. It's the kind of score that often makes you wonder if these mysterious sounds are coming from the aliens, and it's so eerie at times that it gives you goosebumps, in a good way.
I hate to admit it, but Arrival won't be for everyone. It's not an action movie, it's more of a drama, but it's also thrilling smart sci-fi that will light up the minds of those who love to look up at the stars and wonder when we'll make first contact. And the major twist in the third act, which is not something to be discussed until you've seen the movie, is clever and awe-inspiring. You will want to discuss it with friends as soon as it's over. What Christopher Nolan wanted to achieve with Interstellar is actually achieved with Arrival, and I think it's actually just a bit better than that movie (and I do love that movie, too). It shows that sci-fi is one of the smartest ways to make us reflect more on our own choices and who we are as humans, as individuals.
It doesn't matter if other people don't like this movie or critics find some flaws in it, it's a major milestone for science fiction. It's another evolution in sci-fi storytelling, borrowing some good ideas from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Contact and Sphere and Interstellar and taking them one step further. And at the end, instead of going big or going insane or throwing in some gimmick, it gets back to the heart of the story, to the emotions and potential for hope and for change. Which is exactly what great sci-fi is best at - making us see that we need to change, and we can change, if only we open our minds just a bit more than we're doing now. As a huge fan of sci-fi, I can confidently say that Arrival is one of the best sci-fi films of this new era, and I can't wait for everyone else to experience it, too. Don't spoil it before, go in fresh and see for yourself.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 9.9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing