Arrival is the type of film where the less one knows going into it, the better. That makes my job of reviewing the film a little difficult. With that in mind, I promise this review will not contain any spoilers that haven’t already been seen in the trailers.
So without further ado, let’s get on with the review.
A dozen oblong alien spacecrafts have landed in seemingly random places on Earth, and no one knows why exactly they are here. The United States government sends linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist/mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the landing site in Montana in an attempt to communicate with the aliens and learn of their exact intentions. That’s all I can say really. As expected, shenanigans ensue.
Arrival may be the best science fiction film to come out in recent memory. It’s smart, quiet, and infused with heart. Arrival is soulful down to its very core, and director Denis Villeneuve portrays the impact that an impending alien invasion has on people on both a micro and macro level quite effectively. Not only do we get to see the intimate reactions between our main characters, we also get to experience the differing dynamics between the major countries who have had the luck of an alien ship landing in their backyard. In other words, the stakes of the film are deeply personal but are shown against a vast global backdrop.
Villeneuve, coming off his success with Sicario, exhibits extreme confidence in his directing of Arrival. There are fairly high concepts on display here in Arrival, and not once does Villeneuve slow the film down in order to explain things. He has confidence in the audience’s ability to keep up, and it’s because of his refusal to compromise on his vision that allows Arrival to be the intelligent film that it is.
With that being said, when the film does venture into the more weird and abstract sci-fi concepts, Villeneuve makes it quite easy to understand, yet still intellectually rewarding. Credit must be given to writer Eric Heisserer, who was given the task of adapting the unique short-story Story of Your Life into a feature film, which he executes masterfully. Not one line of dialogue is wasted, and the film moves at such a deliberate pace that it would be easy for some of the film’s overarching themes to become lost in the shuffle. Fortunately, that is not the case.
The sheer emotion on display here is breathtaking. Arrival will pull on your heart-strings. A lot. I know I felt the need to reach for a box of tissues multiple times throughout the film. Much of that emotionality is due to the incredibly rich performance from Amy Adams, whose stint as Louise Banks may be one of the best roles of her career. Jeremy Renner’s Ian is great as well, if the typical Jeremy Renner-type of role, and his chemistry with Adams is wonderful. The duo bounces off each other quite well, as they work together to try to decipher the incredibly complicated alien language. Forest Whitaker is also in this thing. He plays a colonel in the army that has been tasked with managing Louise and Ian, and his role is elevated above what would be a very non-consequential character due to the excellent performance from Whitaker.
This emotionality also bleeds through the camera-work and cinematography. Simply put, Arrival is gorgeous to look at. It’s dark and cold, unnerving even. Yet there is still an underlying beauty to be found. While on the surface Arrival may look dreary, there is a sense of optimism and hope that shines through. There are some really marvelous shots on display here, as is expected in a Villeneuve film. I found the shots emphasizing the sheer scale of the alien ships to be quite stunning in particular.
Not only does the film look beautiful, it sounds beautiful as well. Arrival contains a spectacular score composed by one Jóhann Jóhannsson (who previously collaborated with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario).The score is epic when it needs to be, and quietly intimate when the film demands it. It’s absolutely fantastic.
Arrival is an achievement by every meaning of the word, and it’s hard to say why without spoiling just what is so special about it. The film emotionally resonates, and deals with themes that will be picked apart and debated for years to come. All of this is wrapped up in one of the best genuine science fiction films to come out this turn of the century, and Villeneuve was somehow able to achieve this within the rigid studio system.
For a lack of better words, Arrival is fucking amazing.