“Arrival” Movie Review


     Director Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is a feast of thought provoking ideas and emotions that may center on a sudden alien invasion of earth, but as it unfolds proves to be about something else entirely.  Absent the over the top spectacle and forgettable dialogue common in genre films such this past summer’s “Independence Day: Resurgence”, “Arrival” sets a somber tone early, as we see a mother giving birth and holding her baby daughter for the first time, only to find out years later as a teenager she has incurable cancer.  Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) tells us afterwards she doesn’t believe that things can have a beginning and an end anymore.  A renowned linguist, Louise makes her way to the classroom at the college she teaches at, completely oblivious to what’s going on around her as she arrives to a near empty class.  Something has happened, but her brokenness and acclimation to her daily routine leave her without the wherewithal to notice.

     With its initial scenes projecting a sense of dread and despair, Villeneuve utilizes a color palette muted in grays and blues while timing cues from Johann Johannsson’s haunting score to ensure we understand as an audience the characters on screen are engulfed in an emotional whirlpool of tension and disbelief.  Without notice, twelve shell like structures descend upon earth and hover just above the ground in what is also viewed as being twelve very strategic locations around the globe.  On the mainland United States, the alien craft settles over a rural area in Montana, with the military and various intelligence agencies encamped right in front of the visitors.  

     We learn through a meeting with Louise and Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) of a series of attempts to make contact, but progress in the 48 hours since the arrival has been minimal with the on site experts unable to discern the language being spoken.  Having worked with Louise before on terrorist related matters, Weber asks Louise to come back with him to the alien craft landing site and attempt to work through their language and determine what their purpose is for coming to earth.  Accompanying her is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who has a number of questions of his own for our new friends.

     Their are obviously many ways for the story to proceed from this point, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”), working from a story by Ted Chiang, ensures from the beginning we will not be on a well traveled path.  Much of what the characters experience as we go with them on their first entrance into the alien ship has a very unexpected feel to it.  Aside from the obvious tension that would accompany such an endeavor, there is also a very noticeable look to the design that is both ominous and plainly drawn at the same time.  When a unique gravitational circumstance allows Louise, Ian, and their military counterparts to walk up the side walls of the ship, they find themselves in a large smoke filled room that seemingly separates them via glass from the aliens who are looking to learn as much about us, as we are about them.

     Known to the human characters as “heptapods” because of their seven legged squid like bodies, the creatures approach the glass amidst a cloud of white smoke and communicate by secreting a kind of black ink from their legs which then form circular symbols featuring highly detailed characteristics that Louise believes is their form of communication.  After a series of scenes in which some progress is made, Villeneuve includes a montage narrated by Ian serving as a way to fill the audience in on just how they are able to differentiate between the symbols and the overt behaviors of the two aliens they are now having regular conversational sessions with.

     But make no mistake, “Arrival” for all its impressive set pieces, scientific explanation, and worldwide consequences which come to light, is not about aliens or how to communicate with them.  Instead, this is a very personal story about the struggles we have all had as we try to make our way through a life that tends to place insurmountable obstacles in the way of any kind of happiness.  As told through the eyes of Louise, we know of her past and you get the sense many of her actions, as well as the methodology she insists on while learning the alien’s language is all designed for her own healing.  We watch as Louise navigates through her character arc, only to have it come full circle in what has to be one of the most emotionally revealing sequences I’ve seen in quite some time.  No, “Arrival” is not a happy story, but there is something in all of us that will relate to Louise and what she has been through up to the point where the aliens land on earth.  

     Amy Adams carries the film with one of her most nuanced performances in years, commanding the screen and overshadowing her male counterparts when they share it with her.  And Denis Villeneuve has clearly established himself as one of the most visionary directors of our time, having directed the suspense thriller “Prisoners” in 2013, as well as the outstanding drug cartel drama “Sicario” in 2015.  With “Arrival”, Villeneuve takes another step forward in creating a film that rivals the intelligence of “Contact”, the ingenuity of “Inception”, and the heart of “Gravity”.  In truth, this is exactly what the Science Fiction genre needed.  GRADE: A