I am going to talk about ’Arrival’ without even mentioning the plot, so don’t worry about spoilers.
There is a certain sensation that a serious film-goer might be aware of that casual popcorn-chompers may never fully appreciate. That sensation is the almost subconscious relaxation that comes over a person when they realize that they’re in good cinematic hands. You go to the theatre, and sit down, and turn off your phone, and the house lights dim, and the movie begins, and suddenly you find yourself immersed in this enormous, calm wave of relief. Yes, you say to yourself, this film-maker knows what he’s doing. Sometimes you get that feeling ten minutes into a film, sometimes less.
With Denis Villeneuve’s ’Arrival’, the sensation shows up almost immediately. Practically from the very first camera set-up.
This isn’t just a confident film-maker who knows exactly how and when he is going to dole out information. This isn’t just a film-maker who knows how to work with his cinematographer, who is just crazy amazing. This is a film-maker who, in a way, uses every cinematic technique in his tool-kit to teach you how to watch his film and how to fully appreciate his film. 'Arrival' is a crash-course in aesthetics and pacing and narrative, and it should declare to anyone who watches this film that Villeneuve is a director to keep an eye on.
Moreover, you sense almost instinctively that you can trust what he’s doing. This movie is not going to end up in some stupid nonsensical twist that betrays everything that has come before. It’s not going to trick you or kick you in the ass just for the sake of tricking you or kicking you in the ass. It may have a powerful, emotional surprise or two, but they aren’t cheap, they are integral. They are deeply considered, and woven deftly into the fabric of this film. And if you’ve been an attentive film-goer and learned how to watch this film while also watching it, you will appreciate that, ultimately, they have always been an intrinsic part of the story. But you’ll have to watch this film to know what I mean.
A lot of people are saying, “If you're a fan of sci-fi, then you owe it to yourself to see this.” I think what really needs to be said about ’Arrival’ is, if you have a high-school-aged daughter, or niece, you owe it to her to take her to see this.
This movie may be small comfort, especially after a vicious U.S. election that succeeded in revealing how surprisingly anti-science and how sadly anti-woman our modern world really is. But for those who aren't afraid to think or to feel, this film is still some comfort. I didn't expect to feel so fiercely hopeful after seeing a mid-November sci-fi movie, but I was.
Now I'm just going to hang on to that hope for as long as I can.
NerdWriter has a spoilery YouTube video that expresses similar ideas here: https://youtu.be/z18LY6NME1s