What will happen when aliens land on Earth? That is just one of the many questions posed in Denis Villeneuve’s (Prisoners, Sicario, Enemy) latest film Arrival, a science fiction drama that will no doubt be a big contender during awards season. With the film, Villeneuve has delivered his most affecting film to date that left this critic in a puddle of tears by the time the credits rolled.
After a prologue that rivals Pixar’s Up in terms of its ability to have you reaching for tissues, 12 alien ships arrive in various locations on Earth, hovering about 1,000 feet above the ground. Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by a Colonel for the U.S. military (Forest Whitaker) to try to decipher the aliens’s language. Working with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise attempts to find out why the aliens (nicknamed “heptapods” due to their seven long tentacles) have arrived on our planet.
Viewers walking into Arrival expecting an alien invasion film will no doubt leave disappointed. The film has more in common with Close Encounters of the Third Kind than it does with Independence Day. It has bigger ideas in mind than either of those two films though. The aliens are there, and Villeneuve is not shy about showing them early on, but Arrival isn’t about them. Arrival is about the humans, and how the aliens’ arrival effects one particular character. Tackling the arrival on a smaller scale and limiting it to one side’s perspective (that of the Americans) adds to the tension that pervades the film.
A large theme in the film is trust and how fear plays a part in it. The U.S. military is working closely with the 11 other countries where the ships have arrived and tensions gradually rise as the film progresses. China wants to attack it. Australia sides with the U.S. Other countries have their own opinions on the matter. Many fear that one of the other countries learned something that they have not and will use that knowledge against them. It is a simple way to create suspense but it pays off in spades. Arrival is a slow burn but it is never boring.
Performances are strong across the board, but Adams is the star here. She is in nearly every scene and delivers an emotionally resonant performance that will stick with you long after you have walked out of the theater. Whitaker is serviceable in his supporting role, but Renner is still stuck playing the same type of character he always plays: an everyman. Again though, this is Adams’s film and she delivers a rich performance.
Credit must be given to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, whose script is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”. Heisserer’s skills as a writer improve with each subsequent script he turns out. It’s hard to believe that just six years ago he earned his first screenwriting credit for the underwhelming remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. After that he wrote 2011’s Final Destination 5 and The Thing to mixed reception, followed by the Paul Walker-starrer Hours. His screenplay for this year’s Lights Out (review) was a mostly successful study of depression and grief, but he knocks it out of the park with Arrival. It is his most mature work to date and where Lights Out may have not fully succeeded in its study of mental illness, Arrival most definitely succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish.
To top things off, Arrival looks spectacular. Every shot impresses and while this is not an effects-driven movie, what little effects there are simply stun. The heptapods are CGI creations, but they look quite convincing. Bradford Young’s cinematography is gorgeous and Joe Walker edits the film with a controlled hand, supporting the film’s deliberate pace.
Arrival is a truly affecting piece of filmmaking. It deals with global themes that are more relevant today than ever before and is bookended by some tear-jerking emotional wallops. The fact of the matter is that no review can explain just how this film will affect you. This is more than a film. It is an experience. So go experience it.