When Eric Clapton first saw Jimi Hendrix play live, his hands reportedly fell from his guitar and he walked off stage. Backstage, he was found trying to light a cigarette with shaking hands. He remarked, “Is he really that good?”
There are certain artists, certain works of art, that when they come along others in the field just step back and question their own worth. I have a feeling “Arrival” will become one of those movies that other movie makers sit back and go, “How can I ever live up to that?”
In the movie industry there have been many of these gems that stand out above the rest. “Citizen Kane”, “The Godfather”, for example. In the sci-fi subgenre, there are similar movies. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is often the gold standard.
There will no doubt be numerous comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey” for as long as “Arrival” is talked about. If for no other reason than the abundant symbolism and spectacular use of the frame to tell the story.
And that is where this spoiler-free review begins. With the camera’s frame. Cinematographer Bradford Young and Director Denis Villeneuve turn the camera in an artist’s brush, painting the screen with powerful emotions and a sense of space, time, and dimensionality. When Louise (Amy Adams) is feeling claustrophobic, we feel it as well. When she is overwhelmed, we are overwhelmed. This is accomplished by genius use of the camera as well as perfect sound design.
For example, as Louise is ushered quickly through cramped military tents, she’s not given enough time to process what is going on. The camera conveys this feeling by following her in documentary style, but uncomfortably close to her so we can never truly get a sense of what is going on or what is around her. It only passes over things she herself looks at, and those things only remain in focus for as long as she looked upon them. If her eyes glance briefly at a room as she rushes past, we get a quick jerk in that direction before returning to the path ahead. At the same time, our ears are inundated with all the sounds of a bustling military operation center and the confused babble it generates.
It masterfully conveys the sense of urgency, confusion, and overwhelming power of the situation she finds herself in.
It goes beyond great shots, though. Without going into spoiler territory, let me just say that Villeneuve and Young make a genius move in turning the movie theatre itself into part of the story. All I can say on the subject is: the interior of the craft. When you see it, you will understand it. But it will probably require the entire movie, including the credits, for it to completely click.
And this is where giving a review of “Arrival” without spoiling it becomes nigh impossible. Let me just say that there are undertones and ideas presented in the movie that are done so well, through great writing, perfect acting, and amazing visual and aural design, that when the revelation finally hits you, as a viewer, you question the validity of that revelation.
“Is it really that good?” I found myself asking as I realized where the story went. What are the odds that someone sat down to write it out like this and it worked? A million to one. Speaking as a writer, we all have visions of that amazing story that blows everyone away. But few of us ever create that.
What are the odds that someone sat down to block out those shots and they worked? Every director and cinematographer wants to make the next great classic – the epic that stands the test of time. But they rarely do.
What are the odds the score and sound design would mesh perfectly with those other elements? What are the odds you can find a composer up to the task?
But it gets better. As I left the theatre, my mind churning over everything I just witnessed, lightning struck again. While I was busy asking myself was it really that good or was it just a great accident, I came to the greatest realization: the story wasn’t even about what I thought it was about.
I’ll leave you with this: many things “arrive” throughout our lives. Sometimes the biggest arrivals aren’t the most important ones.
Now, do yourself a favor and go watch this movie in a theatre. Let it wash over you. Remember that feeling the first time you ran across the treetops in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? Remember that moment a voice whispered, “Something wonderful” across the vast expanse of space in “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Let yourself be swept up into that same wonder here.