“Arrival,” based on the short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, follows the events of twelve alien spacecrafts that have landed on random locations on Earth. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, is brought in by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to the craft that landed in Montana. She works with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to establish communication with the two extraterrestrial beings, known as Heptapods (who are nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Ian), to find out what they want and why they’ve landed here.
What makes talking about this film so challenging is that it’s the type of movie that’s better if you see it not knowing too much going in.
After many disappointing blockbuster-sized projects — like “Independence Day: Resurgence” or any film by Neill Blomkamp — that have failed to create interesting characters and plots that have something creative to offer, director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Sicario”) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Final Destination 5” and “Lights Out”) masterfully crafted one of the best first-contact films since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Villeneuve and Heisserer chose to take a tired sci-fi cliché and present it in a way that felt fresh. For those who were expecting a mindless studio cash-grab will be surprised by getting a beautiful and powerful character piece that just so happens to take place at the same time as aliens visiting Earth.
Villeneuve’s direction shines during the scenes where we first see the alien craft in an epic long take as we follow a helicopter landing on the military site where most of the film takes place, as well as the suspenseful lead up to Banks’ first meeting with the Heptapods —made more haunting by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s breathtaking score. The most interesting thing about Villeneuve’s directing is that his previous films have typically dealt with themes of the worst aspects of humanity, but here, he chose to tell a story where any conflict is solved by civil conversations.
Adams gives a career-defining performance in the film as she successfully carries the emotional weight effortlessly. Though there is some irony in this role as she also plays a crucial role in a different kind of first encounter film, “Man of Steel.” Adams sells both the terror of first meeting the Heptapods and wonder of being the first human to succeed in communicating with them.
Where she truly shows her talent is her flashback scenes with her daughter Hannah, who died at the age of 12 due to a rare brain cancer. These scenes typically in most films fall flat due to them not adding anything to the overall story or feeling super clichéd, however, Villeneuve and Heisserer found a brilliant and emotional way of making these scenes work to the best effect.
While Renner’s performance is fine, the character of Ian isn’t the most interesting man in the world. He’s mostly there to ask Banks to simplify her vocabulary and provide some comedic relief. However, it is a nice role-reversal for a film of this nature. Typically, it would be the female character that would be given nothing important to do and only exist to further the development of the male lead.
One warning that must be given before recommending this film is that audiences need to be willing to see a film that will toy with your head. Not the same way a Christopher Nolan film does, but rather that the film makes a lot of risky decisions that will take two or three viewings to fully understand. These decisions will alienate most mainstream viewers who want things to make sense on the first viewing.
“Arrival” is one of those films that must be seen in theaters with a group of friends or family so that you’ll be able to talk about how the film made you feel once the credits start rolling. This film joins the ranks of “Midnight Special” and “Hell or High Water” as one of the year’s best films and gives us even more of a reason to look forward to Villeneuve’s next project, the much-awaited sequel, “Blade Runner 2049.”