Well it took until November but we may have the best film of the year on our hands. Arrival is a gorgeous piece of first contact sci-fi that is visually stunning, structurally bold and surprisingly emotional.
Equal parts affirming and mind blowing, the film tells the story of an alien race’s appearance on Earth and humanity’s attempt to communicate with the beings. Amy Adam’s takes the lead as top linguist Dr. Louise Banks while Jeremy Renner does wonderfully minimalist work as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly. Seriously, respect to the man for knowing when to back off and let Adams shine. That ability to do your job well without detracting from the attention on the star is an underrated talent.
Seriously though, Adams is the star here giving a truly top-notch performance. This is a film that demands real range, given that it covers everything from motherly care to the horror-shock of encountering an alien species for the first time. Spending most of the film looking rather justifiably drained, this could be a career definer as Adams manages to convey a complexity of communication that is constantly butting up against the baser demands of the military folk involved.
That sense of communication is what really carries the film forward and serves as its central message. Placing a linguist at the head of the movie is a fascinating choice in that it turns Arrival so far away from the sci-fi films that tend to more commonly populate the market. There is but a single scene of what could really be described as action, the rest is all dialogue and wonderful visuals. What makes this angle work however is not just the excellent cast but the sense of fascination that the film itself seems to find in following the linguistic process of the story.
Guiding that angle at the helm of the film is the excellent Denis Villeneuve, of Sicario and Prisoners fame. I can’t claim to have seen the latter but I can attest to Sicario being little short of a masterclass in film-making. Bringing to life the screenplay crafted by Eric Heisserer, and adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, Villeneueve manages to keep the fascination on something that could very well have been pretentiously self-absorbed.
Instead, we are treated to a language lesson on the bizarre ink-like sigils of the film’s aliens, named heptapods. It’s a lesson that is, of course, of far more paramount importance than may first be realised and when Arrival rips the lid off its big reveal well, you can audibly hear the intake of breath in the cinema. The phrase mind blowing should in the future be reserved only for reveals of such calibre as, and I’m really trying not to spoil anything here, literally everything you have seen thus far comes into a whole new focus.
Now admittedly I left the cinema with more than a few questions, most of which I’m not sure could be answered without a serious delve into theoretical physics. And there is a certain sense of important queries being left unanswered that some may find frustrating. However, quibbles aside (and I do count these as quibbles given how answering said queries would shift the focus of the film to its detriment), this is some seriously smart sci-fi that also has a surprisingly touching heart to it. The emotional aspects bizarrely both are and aren’t at the core of the film, regardless they play out more effectively than I would have expected.
I cannot say enough good things about this film and I don’t want to continue rambling on so I’ll leave it here: Arrival is smart, sweet and deeply beautiful. One of the best films of recent years full stop, definitely one of the best sci-fi. Expect several Oscar nods in its direction, and well deserved on every level they will be. Villeneuve pulls it out of the bag once again and wrangles not just an excellent story but some amazing performances that come together in a film I just cannot wait to talk more about to those who’ve seen it.
Get on this one, you won’t regret it.
Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures