Arrival is a perfect example of why we go to the movies. Denis Villeneuve has become a master of developing smart and intense stories to tell on the big screen. His 2015 film Sicario was among last years bests. This film will be considered no different. Much hype was built up around this film mostly due to its early festival buzz and its score of 100% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Arrival is worth that hype, and then some. It is a piece of cinema that will long be remembered as a sci-fi classic. Arrival is the best sci-fi film to hit theaters since Blade Runner and is another triumphant entry into Villeneuve’s filmography.
The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. After 12 alien aircrafts land in various spots all over the globe, wide spread panic ensues. The U.S. military calls upon Louise Banks (Adams) a brilliant linguist to decipher the aliens language. Joining Banks, is Ian Donnelly (Renner) a theoretical physicist, an Army colonel (Whitaker) and a team of people desperate to find out what the aliens, who come to be known as Heptopods, want on Earth. Together they race against time and other nations who are poised to begin attacking the intruders before they attack us.
If you’re expecting an Independence Day type film with Arrival, don’t. It’s much more cerebral and plotting than that. This is slow burn sci-fi. And, while it isn’t as intense as say a movie like Alien, it is structured to keep you guessing and make you think. Arrival is thinking man’s science fiction film, not Michael Bay science fiction. The way the story is structured is brilliant, and makes it hard to talk about it without spoiling the movie. Villeneuve is a master at creating tension. He uses a similar atmospheric score from Johan Johansson as he did in Sicario. Every trip up the hull of these massive ships is as taut as the next. The very question of what these ships are doing on Earth is enough to keep you glued to the screen. On the whole, Arrival is impeccably crafted by Villeneuve who has quickly established himself as one of the best directors working today.
The performances in the film are top notch. Amy Adams is terrific as Louise. Her character is constructed so carefully and methodically. It is one of her most emotional roles to date. Arrival isn’t so much the story of alien contact as it is a character study. The film focuses on Louise and her mysterious past. Louise is quiet, confident and undeniably brilliant. There isn’t the emotional highs and lows you’ll find with other characters like this. As she deciphers the Heptopods language, we as an audience unravel her back story. Villeneuve crafts an emotional and mysterious aura for Louise.
Credit is due to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who also wrote this years horror hit Lights Out. One of the highlights of Heisserer’s spectacular screenplay is Louise’s character progression. The tragedies she has been apart of have almost made her emotionally numb and Adams is able convey this perfectly. This a huge story and it is centered on Louise. The weight of the world rests upon her shoulders and Villeneuve and Heisserer continually ratchet up the stakes as we draw to the reveal in the tense third act.
Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are also excellent in the film. Although, Renner’s character of Ian at times does feel useless. He even notes as things come to a head he doesn’t know where they would be without Louise. Whitaker has a predictable character progression but nonetheless doesn’t phone it in. Each character in the film has believable motives and never did I feel like someone was wrong. Alien invasion is something I don’t think any of us would know how to handle.
Technically speaking, Villeneuve has skillfully put together a visually stunning and excellent sounding film. Bradford Young’s amazing cinematography makes this film worth seeing on the big screen. Young composes his shots selectively but effectively. Particularly when we are first introduced to the the alien aircraft. Fog lines the rural Montana valley they’ve chosen to land in. It is a dark and sprawling long take at the ominous craft. The drab color palette aesthetically helps this film. The sound design is immersive and adds to the realistic setting the film is able to convey in a somewhat unrealistic premise.
Arrival tackles complicated themes of love, loss, emotion, time and human nature. When the aliens land, each nation handles it in their own way. China takes a somewhat aggressive stance and wants to attack before being attacked. The United States teeters on the brink of following suit. In a way, the major theme of the film is communication. It’s a timely and prudent message that we all could benefit from. Louise begins to discover the truth of the Heptopods language and purpose and we see Louise’s character evolve around these discoveries. Human nature comes into play here in a big way. The world, albeit predictably, reacts exactly the way you think it would. Widespread rioting, looting and panic. Louise serves as the calming presence to juxtapose the anger and violence being displayed throughout the globe.
Arrival is one of the years best films. It is a cerebral, timely and near flawlessly crafted piece of cinema. Villeneuve continues to sharpen his resume as a director to watch. If he can bring the sensibilities displayed in his first five films to his upcoming Blade Runner sequel, it may be worth waiting for. This is one of the most exquisitely crafted sci-fi films in decades and is a refreshing diversion from the usual blockbusters of the genre. Arrival subverts genre stereotypes to give us something meaningful and thought provoking. Arrival and Interstellar (though some will disagree with the latter) are true examples of brilliant sci-fi fare for grown-ups in the blockbuster era of filmmaking. It is a rare achievement of tremendous all-around quality and is destined to become an equally as rare modern classic.