Arrival, the remarkable new film from director Canadian director Denis Villenueve, is our story. Marketed as an aliens thriller, the movie will open your eyes and introduce a discussion after you leave the theater that you wouldn’t have expected going in. At times shocking and all together visceral and thought provoking, Arrival is the best film I’ve seen in 2016. Let me tell you why.
There are smart movie. Well crafted tales that make you nod in admiration. And then there are films that make you feel something emotional and it’s pleasantly overwhelming. They stick with you longer than the well crafted films because they make you determine your stance on something without forcing you into that point of view. Arrival is both of these things at once and the effect is amazing.
The setup is simple. Dr. Louise Banks(Amy Adams in a wonderfully layered performance) can decipher any language and is a world renowned linguist who is scarred by a tragic event. Her world is turned upside down when 12 mysterious alien aircrafts hover over 12 different countries, sparking an internal debate and international discussion on how to collectively respond.
Louise is recruited by Colonel Weber(Forest Whitaker) along with physicist Ian Donnelly(Jeremy Renner, showing his range) to figure out three things. What are they doing here? How did they get here? What do they want?
While Weber and the United States government battle over fundamentals and strategy with China and Russia, Louise figures that the best way to get answers is to properly communicate with them and that includes walking into the Alien ship over Montana and getting as close as possible to these creatures. Together with Ian, she risks more than just her life to figure out the million dollar question. Do the aliens want to do harm or help?
The amazing part about Villenueve’s film is the way it uses the alien subplot as camouflage to tell a truly moving and inspirational tale about our civilizations and how humans naturally react to something new, mysterious, and cryptic. The limitations in our species going back hundreds and thousands of years haven’t changed. Can we see through our initial fears and make the right decision? These themes and questions aren’t open and shut cases here. Villenueve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer don’t let you go easily. They want to set off alarms in your system.
Arrival attacks your brain and heart, and the visual effects involving the communication between Louise, Ian, and the aliens(who they name Abbott and Costello) never fail to take your breath away. The thrills come naturally and the action never overpowers the dramatic storyline.
The final act is one of the most original and emotionally powerful wraps to a movie in years. You won’t see it coming and simplicity can’t afford the rent in Heisserer’s script yet complexity doesn’t enter the room either. Saying the reveal will divide audiences is like saying the way a steak is prepared is meaningless. The trick is in the details and something I won’t begin to discuss or spoil.
I’ve seen too many movies so I can tell where they are going, but this film pulled the rug out from under me. Don’t let the Alien camouflage deter you. This is a fiercely human story.
Amy Adams is simply phenomenal as Louise. She brings layers of guilt, feeling, and knowledge to a tricky role that anchors the film. When you think about great actresses, Adams is at the top of the list and she refuses to slow down. Renner shows his versatility as Ian, a curious man who can’t turn his brain off whether he is in a tent deciphering science or in front of an alien war ship glass communicating with the unknown. He gives the role something extra without overcooking the dialogue. In films like The Bourne Legacy and the Avengers films, Renner has shown his easy going action hero swagger but here he reveals that nerdy fanboy lover also has residence on his ledger of possibilities.
Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlberg are great in smaller yet potent and important roles. Johann Johannsson’s score is perfectly constructed to elicit fear, wonder, and create energy. Bradford Young’s cinematography is Oscar worthy, taking a page from films like Aliens and Contact yet creating its own new world.
The film is based off Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of Your Life”, and lays fine groundwork for Heisserer’s expansive script and story. This film will hit you in places you didn’t think you needed protection for.
Arrival is the kind of movie I’d stand in traffic and tell people to make plans for. I’ve seen a few great movies this year, but none of them are as original and thought provoking as this one. Denis Villenueve positions himself as a renegade filmmaker to reckon with. He’s created a trio of films that astound in completely different ways. Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival. Few directors are working on his level right now, and with his upcoming sequel to Blade Runner, my mouth is officially watering.
Everything about Arrival elicits a “Wow” reaction. It goes places films rarely go, and is smart and powerful at once without alienating the movie goer.
Show some self respect and go see this film. No tomorrow or Monday. Right now. Take a sick day. Find a theater and prepare to be blown away. You may find me in the seat next to you.
Arrival isn’t just good. It’s the best I’ve seen in 2016 and possibly, 2015 as well.