We can stop making science fiction films now. Arrival has said it all. Yes, there’s a very healthy dose of hyperbole with that statement, but that doesn’t make the overwhelming feeling the film conveys, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, any less resonant. Arrival is smart, simple sci-fi that never panders and never overstays its welcome, and, with Amy Adams on board to be our guide through the waterworks that are sure to come, it’s one of the best science fiction films to come around in years and one worthy of the processing required. Emotional and daring in the most exquisite of ways, Arrival becomes that eye-opening tale of alien encounters and communicative sparring that leaves the viewer rattling the ramifications that follow around in their head for days, a key staple for any, good science fiction.
Based on the short story titled “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a gifted linguist whose universe is turned upside down when a dozen spacecrafts mysteriously enter Earth’s atmosphere, seemingly choosing random spots on the map to touch down just ten feet off the ground. Banks, along with a mathematician named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), are called in by the military to open lines of communication with the planet’s new visitors. Managed by the US military, namely Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), it’s up to the scientists to figure out a means to communicate with these extraterrestrials and sort out their ultimate intentions – what do they want and are they hostile.
It doesn’t take long for Villeneuve’s film to find its emotional core, with Banks’ grief over the loss of her only child creating a state that has her living in the past as well as the present. It isn’t a groundbreaking key to the film’s emotions, but the director and writer’s handling creates a genuinely impactful mental state in their protagonist that works wonders when mixed with the chilling alien presence. How it all plays out is even more overwhelming than its simple nature.
Aided by breathtaking cinematography from Bradford Young and accompanied by a foreboding yet grounded, almost elemental, musical score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve’s Arrival looks and feels like something we would have gotten from early Christopher Nolan. Comparisons to Interstellar are sure to be inevitable, but the story elements don’t justify such a comparison, Arrival’s narrative falling in line more with something like Michael Crichton’s “Sphere” than anything else. In essence, though, Arrival is completely its own beast, a thought-provoking look at the science and politics involved when meeting an extraterrestrial race. The less said about them, the better.
Instead, Villeneuve and company take the basic building blocks of the science fiction world and inject them into the very real world of today. The film says more about how we as people would react in 2016 to such a thing than any prescient vision of our future, and the alien’s intentions, though not fully revealed at first, create an important dialogue for any living creature today.
It certainly helps that Adams takes charge in the lead role, grounding those building blocks down to our most basic of human needs with dialogue and performance and letting that sensibility bubble up at every, nuanced moment. The actress says so much with a slight glance oftentimes without even any words to be said. It’s a performance that, like the film itself, gets back to the basics of how it all works and creates a classical sense of understanding, something not many actors can pull off these days.
Even fewer can pull this off while still conveying the tremendous power required to make it all resonate. Everything about Arrival is overwhelming, the moments of beauty mixing flawlessly with the science fiction tone with an almost magical touch. It’s the kind of unique cinematic experience that moves the viewer to tears based on sheer beauty of the work alone, but what that work says and what it ultimately means are the elements out of which masterpieces are made. Denis Villeneuve, whose work in Prisoners and Sicario won’t be forgotten any time soon, has made his masterpiece with Arrival. The ball is now in the court of science fiction as a whole to step up and prove itself alongside it.
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