Real twist endings, the kind that make you reconsider the entire movie, have been out of style for years now, but new alien contact film Arrival is bringing them back.
Arrival is set after 12 space ships touch down on Earth. To address the one in Montana, the U.S. military recruits one of the world’s top linguists, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is still reeling from the loss of her teenage daughter. Along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she is tasked with figuring out why the visitors have come before China opens fire on their pod due to confusion over a word that could be “weapon” or “tool.”
Fresh off his 2015 masterpiece Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve secures his place as the modern master of tension. Arrival is a nail-biting edge-of-your-seat thriller, but watching it you never really know why. Villeneuve summons a vague but terrifying threat, a sense of dread that pervades the film without ever coalescing into something to be afraid of.
None of this comes from the plot, which contains panicky characters who do panicky and potentially destructive things, but even when they do it mostly merits a roll of the eyes. Arrival’s success is all about an atmosphere of cosmic horror and the design choices that feed it. This isn’t a movie about little green men. The aliens in this movie feel truly alien, like things that have absolutely no grounding in Earth’s biology or history. As Banks explains, the aliens’ language system is entirely unlike anything that’s ever developed in Earth’s history, based around fully formed thoughts instead of individual words and completely divorced from their spoken system.
The level of creativity required to make a race that feels like it was truly made from scratch for this film is staggering and extremely rare. The film’s design is based around making the rest of the production just as alien as its featured creatures.
The design of the aliens themselves is sleek, minimalist and deceptively thoughtful. Sometimes they look like giant, pensive spiders, others they look like a hand resting on its fingers, and still others they look like the roots of a great tree stretching out of frame. They spend the movie shrouded in mist, leaving their texture a mystery — and given how bad the CGI looks the one time they do appear outside, that’s a very good thing.
The movie’s sound design is on par. The visitors’ spoken words sound like some combination of cracking ice echoing through a mountain range and growling. Frequent Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson attacks the audience with the score that sounds just as much like it didn’t come from this world.
Sprinkled through the movie is evidence of Banks’ encroaching madness. Memories of her daughter become more frequent and more intense and she has more and more trouble separating the past from the present.
As the tension mounts, it becomes increasingly apparent that a true master is at the helm of this project. As the film becomes harder and harder to live up to, each scene still manages to be even more gripping than the last. For a trip or for a film that will hold you in spellbinding suspense, go see Arrival.
Leopold Knopp is a journalism student at the University of North Texas. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.