There’s something beautifully simple about the complexity of “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s captivatingly science fiction drama.
While the film’s premise feels cookie-cutter cliché, “Arrival” asks more rhetorical questions than it ultimately answers and should serve as a conversation starter about understanding instead of fearing our allies, enemies and the unknown in trying political and social times.
Villeneuve’s third major feature film is the perfect counterbalance to the more popcorn “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” of the cinematic lexicon and redefines artistic science fiction filmmaking in a clearer way than Christopher Nolan’s star-studded “Interstellar.”
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor brought in by the United States military to interpret and communicate with an alien race after large oval-shaped UFOs land in 12 hotspots throughout the globe. Paired with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks has to provide the foundation for interspecies communication under the pressures of global politics all while grieving over the loss of her daughter Hannah.
For all its visual wizardry and narrative complexity, “Arrival” lives and dies by the success or failure of Adams’ lead performance as Banks, who drives the entirety of the action from start to finish. Fortunately for moviegoers, Adams hits it out of the park with her best performance since 2010’s “The Fighter.” Her Banks is logical, yet deeply emotional both from the death of her daughter and the harrowing position the military puts her in. While other actresses might have played Banks on a more one-dimensional level to let the technical aspects shine, Adams elevates her performance to the same level with a thoroughly layered, nuanced turn that will likely be on award voters’ minds as a part of her expected nominated for the yet-to-be-released “Nocturnal Animals” later this month.
The always solid Renner does a terrific job in a supporting role as Donnelly, balancing a fine line between challenging and supporting Banks throughout her mission. A slight character adjustment one way or another would have made Donnelly a pushover or a bully, but Renner keeps Donnelly right in the sweet spot in between to advance the film forward and accentuate Adams’ terrific performance.
What viewers will likely remember first when looking back on “Arrival” are the beautifully grotesque aliens that Banks and Donnelly encounter, known in the film simply as heptapods. While describing the heptapods at great length would ruin the surprise of their initial appearance, Villeneuve and his creative team do a masterful job of making such a strange, unappealing creature look stunning nevertheless. The visual artistry displayed in “Arrival” when it comes to these alien lifeforms is worth the price of admission alone.
“Arrival” confirms Villeneuve as one of the top three to five directors working in Hollywood today following the critical success of the kidnapping drama “Prisoners” and the Oscar-nominated thriller “Sicario.” His film is the perfect thinking man’s sci-fi drama as Villeneuve and crew engage audiences in spirited debate about the meaning of language, reacting out of fear and using communication as a tool to bring people together rather than one to tear people apart.
The film is a surprisingly poignant think piece that forces moviegoers to question their own interactions and sense of right and wrong on interpersonal and geopolitical levels. The intellectual depth that “Arrival” richly bathes in makes it a prime candidate for multiple screenings in the theaters to better understand the complexities of the film’s underlying themes.
Cinematographer Bradford Young masterfully crafts each shot with piercing technical skill to reflect the mood and tone of every scene. The visuals developed over the course of the film become key to the movie watching experience as Villeneuve and Young separate the audience from the narrative in a cold, clinical way. It’s as if moviegoers are watching events unfold like tourists visiting a large aquarium or, in a sense, become the scientists engaging with the heptapods through a clear wall as shown in the film.
It’s unlikely that Villeneuve will see the same sort of awards season success that “Sicario” did sneaking into the Oscar race last year, though a nomination in the technical categories for Young’s cinematography isn’t entirely out of the question given the expected backlash from 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite movement. Regardless, “Arrival” is a film that stays with viewers long after they leave the theater and will likely end up as one of the five best movies in 2016.
“Arrival” isn’t the alien encounter film anyone has been asking for. It’s the one smart moviegoers deserve. Don’t make the mistake of passing it up.