Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
In the last few years we have seen an increase in intelligent films about space exploration and the possibility that something else may be out there. Arrival is one to add to that list with its insightful probe on how we communicate with extra-terrestrials. Don’t worry; this feels more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than say the dreadful Independence Day Resurgence. This is the first of two high-profile films for Amy Adams this year. She also stars alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals. Here she plays Dr. Louise Banks, a college professor who specializes in linguistics. What seemed like a normal day on campus is anything but that when she arrives to class to find that a majority of her students are gone or buried in their phones. There is breaking news that twelve space pods have landed across the world. They are egg-shaped and massive in size. Little is known about the pods but the U.S. Army has been able to successfully enter the pods and note the presence of an alien species. Dr. Banks is approached by Colonel Weber (Whitaker) of the Army to join their team and translate the communication that has been captured from the aliens. She’s partnered with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist who has a slighter different way of thinking about the origin of a species. Together they risk their lives by getting right up close with the aliens in order to bridge the gap of communication between each species.
Director Denis Villeneuve continues to push his way through the pack as a director who deserves to take notice. His 2013 film Prisoners shook me up, and he was on many “best of” lists last year with Sicario. I would expect Arrival to be part of the awards season banter due to the complex nature given to this story, as it is so much more than a simple sci-fi popcorn flick about aliens crashing down to earth. The short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang serves as the basis for the film, which has been expanded by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (The Thing, Lights Out). That title makes more sense when you learn about another aspect of Dr. Banks’s life. I’m not about to get into that, as it would prove to be a huge spoiler.
Villeneuve hooks you right from the beginning. It’s a tender opening but accurately sets into motion the intensity of what’s at stake. Dr. Banks is the only character given any sort of exposition and that’s kept fairly minimal at most. It’s a film that lives very much in the present for its characters and the audience. Bradford Young’s precise cinematography keeps the mystery going with its limited scope at any given time so the audience never gets ahead and sees more than what Dr. Banks or Dr. Donnelly are experiencing as they learn more about the aliens. The whole look of the film is intriguing to the point where I could never take my eyes off the screen. I feared I would miss out on some little detail or discovery.
The film has a plethora of lofty concepts that can’t all necessarily be answered or given equal measure on the first viewing. The basic concept of communicating with aliens is at the forefront, but Dr. Banks goes about it in a very elementary way using visual clues and tactile gestures that are at the forefront of attempting communication with anyone that doesn’t speak the same language you do. Banks’ continual exploration of communication challenges her outlook about life and how we view the time we are given. I’m being vague for a reason, but it all comes full circle in the film’s conclusion. Arrival also tackles the global impacts of such an unexplained occurrence by placing the twelve UFOs all around the world. It forces global communication and teamwork on what they are learning and experiencing at each station. As you can imagine it escalates quickly to a war-like atmosphere based on the doomsday fear mongering that spreads.
There are moments that are driven by the intimacy at hand with Amy Adams’ character. You’ll quickly notice Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score come into play to emphasize this in contrast to the vastly unknown happenings around her. Adams has that maternal side to her that embodies the heart of the character all the while having that direct nature to prove she knows what she’s doing and can be taken seriously in male-oriented workspace. It’s by no means a showy performance but one that packs the punch needed for the ending. She’s partnered with her American Hustle co-star Jeremy Renner who made me take notice in what could have been a thankless role for another actor. He exudes just enough personality as Dr. Donnelly as to not overshadow Adams. The same can be said for how his character compliments the work done by her character.
Recent films like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian all made my best of the year lists. As of now, Arrival is on that list. They each pose such fascinating ideas of what the depths of space may behold. Arrival takes a slightly different approach by keeping it grounded on Earth, but it still asks those weighted questions. It fires on all cylinders as its stunning visuals, score, and the questions posed by Dr. Banks mirror the exact dialogue about communication that the film seeks out. It’s not necessarily a film that will leave you cheering afterwards, but I bet it will be that thought-provoking movie that sits with you longer than expected.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to see it all over again.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS