Smart, impeccably made, with a phenomenal performance by Amy Adams, Arrival proves to be a high point in the science fiction genre
Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker that I thought could be one of the great auteurs of our generation (two of his films appeared on our list of the best thrillers of the decade). After blasting onto the American scene with the Oscar-nominated Incendies, he followed suit four films that all ended up in my top tens of their respective years. Prisoners was a dark ethical exploration of violence with deep emotional complexity. Then came a psychological thriller that begged for cinematic analysis with Enemy. Last year, he made a play for the mainstream with his critique of the drug war in Sicario. This year, he cemented his place as one of my favorite directors of all time with the masterpiece Arrival.
Based on the short story Story of Your Life, Arrival begins with twelve egg-shaped UFOs positioning themselves around the globe in countries like the U.S., China, Russia, Sudan, and Pakistan. The biggest question surrounding our planet is answered: are we alone in the universe? However, once that question is answered another one emerges: what is their purpose on Earth? That is why the government — represented here by Colonel Weber (Laurence Fishbourne) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlberg)— contacts linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
Every 18 hours, the door to the UFO, which they call the shell, opens. Banks along with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) must find a way to decode the visitor’s language and communicate with them before they attack or we do. As progress is made, foreign relations push Banks and Donnelly to the brink of their knowledge to speak with the beings before someone pulls that trigger.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling the experience. So, I will say this. Arrival may become the pinnacle of sci-fi movies this decade, if not this century. Its complex plot is communicated beautifully to the audience without being condescending with a twist that ties the experience into a wholly satisfying conclusion.
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The first act of the film is Louise’s story. Everything we see is either of Louise or her point-of-view. Our emotions and thoughts are filtered through her. She is an observer at the beginning of the film. How is the world reacting? Villeneuve doesn’t go the easy route with a montage of news clips. We know what Louise knows. We see how she reacts and thus how the world reacts. As she’s brought onto the team that is making contact with the shell, the story is taken away from her. It becomes the world’s story. However, soon we realize that it’s not. It’s Louise’s story through and through. She is ingrained into the plot. Even as it gets more philosophical she anchors it in a humanistic way.
Amy Adams is at the top of her game. It blows my mind that she still doesn’t have an Oscar after all these years. Her performance carries the emotional baggage of the entire film as well as the whole story. Renner is great here but really exists to support Adams. Outside of these performances, the steady and dark cinematography by Bradford Young finds such beautiful shots in the sets. Editor Joe Walker understands how to show audiences what they need to know rather than tell them. Lastly, Jóhann Jóhannsson — after last year’s Sicario — again scores a home run with his score that defies genre by pulling from both the horror and thriller genres.
Sci-fi is a hard genre to pull off. Sci-fi with extraterrestrial life is even harder to. The few that make it to become classics like Contact. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have one thing in common: the human condition. Are we alone in the universe? It’s a question that everyone has at one point pondered. How would we react? What would we do? That’s what Arrival is interested in. Specifically, it is interested in how we communicate. Language and Louise are at the center of this movie. The plot surrounds them and Villeneuve understands that. He understands how people consume movies. They don’t want to be told. They want to see. Arrival will challenge us to think and to question. And while we come away with answers, we also experience the stunning power of great filmmaking, great writing, and a great story. 9/10