The 2016 iteration of really well made, prestigious science fiction films is here! Denis Villeneuve's Arrival dollops on the sort of fascinating scientific procedure we got from The Martian and scales back the cheesy emotions of its recent predecessors. Not to say that the film is cold or lacks humanity--far from it--but Villeneuve is a cool customer, avoiding the ham-fisted shmoopiness of Interstellar and cheap motivations of Sandra Bullock in Gravity in favor of nailing the sensation and drama of what the approach (invasion?) of aliens may actually be like. Led by a stripped-down, weary performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is one of the best films of the year.
Louise Banks (Adams) is a professor of linguistics, still reeling from the tragic passing of her teenage daughter, presumably from cancer (note: this is not a spoiler, but something that happens in literally the first minute). She lives alone in a cavernous house overlooking a moody, misty lake, falling asleep to the news on the television every night. Louise's narration plays out over the film's opening moments, as we see her daughter grow from a baby to a young girl, neglected by her mother as she gets older in favor of her linguistic work. She remarks on how certain moments change the course of your life, with the arrival of the aliens being the biggest in hers.
Twelve giant ships have come to Earth, spread out seemingly at random over many different countries. One ship floats a few dozen feet off the ground over a field in Montana, where Louise is brought to help the military communicate with the visitors, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Louise is recruited to find out the purpose of the aliens on Earth; specifically, whether they are friends or enemies. She is teamed up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist whose expertise can help her negotiate the difficult task of interacting with beings who don't conform to the planet's norms.
I don't want to say anything else about Arrival because its narrative surprises are a huge part of its appeal. And it's not the kind of movie that is undone by its twists to the point that you won't enjoy rewatching the film, but because it raises questions about the nature of existence and time that will make you see the entire story in a completely different light. The movie is based on a short story by Ted Chiang called "The Story of Your Life," adapted as a passion project by horror screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, who is also responsible for the 2011 remake of The Thing, Final Destination 5 and this year's Lights Out. Heisserer has gone on record saying that his entire career has led up to the production of Arrival, and you can tell. Despite the film's towering ambitions, the story is constructed tightly and satisfyingly, with an air of authenticity to the dialogue that is borne out of Heisserer's being the son of a linguist himself. The fact that one of the film's most exciting and interesting scenes involves Louise diagramming a sentence is a credit to Heisserer's talents.
Villeneuve's detached, dread-filled approach to the material gives the film a massive visual bonus. Villeneuve is given to slowly panning and tracking camera movements, which are shot in staggeringly beautiful grey tones by Bradford Young, one of the best cinematographers working today. The film is daringly slow-moving for a Hollywood production, trusting the audience to lavish in the terrifying and wondrous sights set forth by the special effects and production design teams. When you finally see the aliens, you feel just as blown away as the characters in the film. Villeneuve's standby composer, Johann Johannson, delivers typically monolithic work that complements the visuals, in the same way Stanley Kubrick found inspiration in classical music.
As I alluded to earlier, Arrival takes a big narrative leap in the third act, the kind that you are either completely on board with or not. I was and hope that anyone who sees the film can give it the chance to work its wonders on them. Villeneuve and company have crafted a brooding yet optimistic science fiction film that transcends its genre limitations into something truly profound, a step that few other recent genre films have taken. Critics have described Arrival as a film for adults--not in a prurient way--and I'm inclined to agree. For you really to appreciate what the film has to offer, you have to have lived a little first. I'm looking forward to revisiting the film as time goes on.