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Arrival, starring Amy Adams as a linguistics professor called upon to decipher the language of an alien race, is a science fiction film filled with heady ideas, emotional currents and a sense of discovery that engages both the brain and heart as it eventually gets at something profound about the human condition. It is a movie of great inspiration, both in design and the awe it sometimes inspires in us.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short Story of Your Life, the film stars Adams—who will garner a Best Actress nod for her obsessively invested performance—as Dr. Louise Banks, who is summoned by the U.S. military after 12 alien spaceships begin hovering close to Earth around the world.
The arrival of the aliens over a remote Montana field is naturally met with a panic, and Banks—who formerly aided the military in a Farsi translation—is promptly recruited by a hardline Army general (Forest Whitaker) for face time with the extraterrestrials to decode their intent.
Also participating is Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist playing second fiddle to Banks’ observations in a Bechdel-passing turnabout that makes the female character the smartest guy in the room. One terrific scene finds Banks approaching the species alone while reluctantly Donnelly follows suit—that’s movie progress.
Their encounters with the alien beings, who reside at the end of a darkened tunnel deep inside their pods, are both visually and narratively compelling, and they are nicknamed “Heptapods” for their seven, foot-like tentacles. They express themselves in guttural groans, and soon Banks implements a picture-based language. Adams, the most likable of movie actresses, effortlessly delivers complex dialogue here in her signature girl-next-door accessibility, a smart choice for this cerebral.
One of Arrival’s greatest pleasures is watching the communication slowly develop and unfold; it’s a brainy proposition always ahead of us. But when half-interpretations lead to knee-jerk conclusions, a ticking clock to military retaliation is set in motion.
That cursory plot outline might sound like any number of reductive science fiction movies and you might feel certain while watching Arrival that it is headed toward a War of the Worlds showdown, the kind which typically depicts an extended battle resolved with a brotherhood of global goodwill.
But Arrival isn’t interested in such populist payoffs; rather, it builds to an absorbing final third where, when the mystery of the alien visit is revealed, it is the sort of contemplative deep-think we expect from the very best science fiction, a suggestion that the keys to understanding time, empathy and global communication are all within our reach if just happen to shift perspective.
As mounted by visionary director Denis Villeneuve, who helmed Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario, Arrival is sometimes cerebral and cool to a fault; detached in its brainy analyses and emotionally paralyzed heroine. But just as Eric Heisserer’s screenplay wisely skirts any sense of the formulaic, it also delays our gratification until the stirring final act, which makes good on emotional territory established early in the picture.
The result is a movie that works for both the head and the heart, and one in which hardware and premise never upend the personal stakes. Wisely, the movie is devoid of action sequences save one momentary explosion and a single, frantic phone call.
Technical credits are across the line superb, with special mention to Johan Johansson’s score, a key piece used here to underscore emotions of loss and rebirth (the same piece used in 2012’s Disconnect), and Joe Walker’s editing, particularly in the final sequence as the mystery comes into focus.
Villeneuve’s film is about a lot of things, and aliens—at least as we have come to know them in American movies—are probably the least among them, though the creations here are certainly foreboding and beautifully realized. It is a movie that asks very big questions about human perception and the ability to find enlightenment in a world that so often makes little sense.
Arrival is in that company of the best science fiction films, and this year’s best films.