Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
What just happened? That’s the question I asked myself stepping out of the theater after viewing Arrival, the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, director of the amazing Prisoners and really solid Sicario. This isn’t your kids’ sci-fi film. Arrival is complex, dramatic, brilliant, intellectual, and wholly unique. Don’t plan to check text messages during this one or you’ll be lost; it requires undivided attention and rewards you for the effort.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, one the United States’ foremost linguists. She is teaching at a university when one twelve mysterious egg shaped ships arrive. They hover at various, seemingly random points around the world. The first fresh element of this story is that our main characters are representing us in the film; they aren’t scared as much as they are fascinated and excited. It’s refreshing to see characters excited at the possibility of meeting new life from a far away planet. I don’t know if we’ve had characters at this level since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Back on topic now. So, Louise is brought in to help find a way to communicate with the aliens along with scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.
If you’ve seen Prisoners or Sicario you know what to expect from this director and he does not disappoint. It takes real guts to let your story breathe the way arrival breathes. The film doesn’t lead you to an emotional response with sappy music. Instead there are long stints of silence or ambient noise that allow the story and more importantly the actor on screen to lead you through the events on screen emotionally and intellectually. It’s brilliant storytelling that expects audience members to their part in the experience rather than just plop everything down on a silver platter for the feast. It’s a truly rewarding viewing experience. Now there is a soundtrack, it’s beautifully subtle and effective when it’s needed and it quietly adds another layer to the storytelling that you may not get on your first viewing.
The cast is good but Amy Adams blazingly outshines everyone. The actress delivers quite possibly her best theatrical performance to date. Her line delivery is real, it’s layered without melodrama and her simple facial expressions and reactions are even better. Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner are both good but they just don’t have as much to do as Adams. The cinematographer delivers some truly stunning moments and the editing develops a precise and dramatic pace that allows the story to truly unfold rather than slap the audience across the face.
If there’s really something to complain about it might be that the linguistic breakthrough is glossed over just a little. We are told by Louise how it works but seeing her make the breakthrough is a fleeting scene. This is a minor complaint for a film that works so hard to keep the intellectual bar high and the action minimal and in places that serves the plot only. Some fans have touted Arrival as not only the best movie of the year but possibly the best science fiction film of the 2000’s. While I don’t know that I agree with that hyperbole I could easily be swayed I think. Arrival is just literally that good. This is not a space opera with lasers and space battles. Arrival is as realistic and smart as you could possibly make aliens arriving on earth, and it’s truly brilliant.