Arrival is a more satisfying puzzle movie from director Denis Villeneuve than Enemy, even if I personally wasn’t able to put the puzzle together until after the credits rolled.
Ostensibly a science-fiction drama about the mysterious arrival of 12 floating, giant monoliths across the globe, including Montana, the movie actually belongs to the cinematic tradition of philosophical space flicks that ultimately turn inward (Interstellar, Gravity, Solaris). This is clear from the opening images, which are not of the spaceships themselves but of accomplished linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) cooing over a baby while offering vague thoughts on memory and time.
Louise is eventually recruited to be part of the military team that has made first contact at the Montana site. Villeneuve, who has proven with the likes of Sicario and Prisoners to know how to tighten cinematic screws, stages Louise’s close encounter with suspenseful precision. Even before we seen the aliens, the darkness of the space—and the way the camera captures the ship’s inversion of gravity—makes things tantalizingly off-kilter.
The music by Jóhann Jóhannsson and overall sound design have much to do with this atmospheric tension. The aliens emit whale-like moans, and this sound is echoed in the score even before we see the creatures. I won’t say much about their appearance, except to note that I found it both convincing and ingenious, particularly as it relates to their method of communication (which is also conveyed in arresting visual terms).
Indeed, the consideration of communication—the nitty gritty of how it works, particularly between vastly different cultures—is the most compelling element of Arrival. Although Adams brings her usual committed tremulousness to her performance, the sequences involving Louise and her daughter (the baby we see at the start) also carry the functional weight of being puzzle pieces. The movie cheats at times, deliberately encouraging misreadings rather than simply being ambiguous. But maybe that’s just me getting sniffy because I was slow to grasp (and still remain a bit suspicious) of its mind-blowing revelation. Arrival is—more than most, then—a film you just have to see for yourself.