Generally, when giant alien spacecraft appear out of nowhere around the globe, it’s a bad thing. If ‘Independence Day’ proved nothing else, it’s that those ET ain’t friendly and deserve to be greeted with a mixture of firepower and one-liners. Then there are the more thoughtful outings in this particular genre, like Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’, which plays with the military’s inevitably paranoid response to such an event, but doesn’t necessarily turn first contact into an intergalactic arms war.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, our hero in this sci-fi tale. She’s a linguistics professor just as shocked as anyone else when monolithic ships from space appear without warning on Earth. She’s even more surprised when an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) shows up at her door asking for her help. She’s done well finding ways to communicate with unknown languages before and now she has a doozy to crack.
On the journey to an alien ship in the desert, Banks also meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Together, they board the ship and meet the practically Lovecraftian tentacle beasts from beyond, who communicate through what can only be described as inky alien symbols. Slowly, Banks and Donnelly begin to crack the code. At the same time, tensions are rising as the reactions of other governments around the world are a bit more militant and there’s pressure to attack. Meanwhile, Banks is plagued with memories of a past trauma that seem to grow more intense as she spends time with the creatures from another world.
‘Arrival’ is not exactly a sci-fi epic that comes out with guns blazing. That’s not really the Villeneuve way. The director behind ‘Incendies‘, ‘Enemy‘ and ‘Sicario‘ likes taking his time and building atmosphere more than blowing stuff up real good (though he can certainly do that just fine). His visuals are as stunning as always. Each frame is beautifully composed and each edit builds toward a careful visual tapestry. The alien ships and creatures are otherworldly, imposing, and just slightly beyond the norm of the usual designs in this sort of movie. Villeneuve plays games with gravity on their craft and maintains an uneasy sense of tension from the first frame to the last. The film is a work of grand spectacle, just one designed to worm its way into the heads and hearts of viewers rather than shove them into a theme park ride. The director shows an affinity for the genre and its ambiguities which suggests that the ‘Blade Runner’ franchise is in good hands with him.
Beyond all the awe-inspiring imagery, this is very much a human story. Amy Adams grounds and carries the movie on her shoulders admirably. It’s too cold a world with stakes too high for the actress to do any of her endearingly adorable comedy, but she crafts a strong and moving presence that carries quite a bit of emotional weight. The story has secrets that are constructed impressively. Villeneuve plays with the conventions of movie language to make us think we’ve seen something that’s actually completely different, and when everything finally snaps together, the result has a big weepy impact.
Some might find it a bit corny, and indeed the story has a few minor contrivances to pull off its ambitions in a reasonable running time. However, for the most part, viewers can expect to be wowed and moved in equal measure. The entire cast does an impressive job of keeping this otherworldly odyssey small enough to feel human, but Adams holds it all together and she is extraordinary (as always).
For those who pooh-pooh the idea that blockbuster entertainment can also offer artistic satisfaction, ‘Arrival’ offers welcome proof otherwise. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a rather amazing one suited to both the populist popcorn munching and pretentious coffee shop crowds. This is certainly going to be all over those year-end “Best of” lists and gobble up award nominations, but hopefully it’ll draw some box office dollars as well. If filmmakers like Villeneuve can be allowed to play with the big dogs in the blockbuster movies race, the multiplexes will get a lot more interesting.