The last three autumns gave us the sci-fi masterpieces Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian. While December’s Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt-starring Passengers has gotten more buzz online, the heir apparent in tone has seemed like it would be Arrival.
On the surface, Arrival tells the tale of what it might be like if we make first contact with an alien species. Below that exterior of entertainment, though, the latest piece of cinematic wonder from director Denis Villeneuve also examines what it means to be a self-conscious being, while still finding time for visuals that will linger in your memory.
Linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) leads an isolated life, teaching students who don’t really care. When a dozen almond-shaped spacecraft appear at seemingly random spots on the globe, Louise is approached by a US Army colonel (Forest Whittaker) to assist in communicating with the creatures inside the one ship over American soil.
On the flight to the vertically hovering ships — nicknamed “shells” — Louise meets her partner in first contact, theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner). Louise and Ian are tasked to find out, above all other priorities, what the purpose is for the aliens’ visit. If only there weren’t that pesky language barrier between the two radically different species.
Like many strong stories in science-fiction, two things are true of Arrival. One: it’s hard to do the movie justice by describing the plot. And two: the less you know about the story beforehand, the better.
Louise and Ian find themselves slowly making headway against the seemingly impossible task of learning to communicate with a radically different species, but the trajectory of their story and the thought-provoking twists it takes are most impressive if you know nothing more than the fact (as in the best sci-fi) things are not ever quite what they seem.
Adams, whose strong work in the last decade has been recognized with four Oscar nominations, gives probably her greatest performance yet as Louise. Grounding her professor with a woundedness that only makes sense by Arrival’s end, she smartly restrains her normally energetic personality from the beginning, allowing emotions to be expertly re-triggered over the course of her narrative.
Renner is given his best role here since the days of The Town and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and it’s largely because he doesn’t have to share the screen with a half-dozen superheroes. Ian is one of the most likeable characters of the year, with the same exact charm Jeff Goldblum employed as another Ian in Jurassic Park. Adams’ emotional journey is perfectly balanced by his comedic energy.
Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who may not yet be a household name but deserves to be. His 2013 feature Prisoners was one of the best movies of the year, and his absolutely brilliant Sicario was one of the very few 5-star movies to come from 2015. That one-two punch was no fluke: Arrival is the equal to Sicario, if not actually better.
Almost any other movie tackling this subject would involve lots of violence, shooting, and explosions — and, admittedly, all three do occur over the course of the movie. Arrival’s gustiness comes through in how restrained it strives to be, until the point it finally earns the right to go for broke in the final act.
If someone warns you that they didn’t like the movie past a certain point, that the ending was confusing, or that the movie was boring, be aware: they are the same type of person who didn’t like 1997’s Contact because it didn’t show the aliens.
Arrival is a more cerebral picture, interested in using what-ifs and hypotheticals to conjure an irresistible scenario, only to create increasing danger and tension. It’s more a child of The Abyss and Sphere than of modern-day pictures, but that helps it stand out all the more against the space-set sci-fi of the last few years.
Like several other masterpieces of science-fiction, Arrival is not for everyone. It’s polarizing in all the best ways of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey and doesn’t pander to those who don’t want to give in to the movie’s frequency. If you’re willing to let Arrival connect with you on its own terms, though, it’s an experience befitting of the best movie of 2016 so far.