Here is a film that feels like some kind of miracle for the science-fiction genre; a film with a pulse that belongs to its director and a heart that belongs to its writer. Here is a science-fiction film for the intellectually driven; one that causes us to step back and not only examine our place in the universe but also our place on our own planet (something that couldn’t feel any more timely with the election of Donald Trump as our president). Here is Arrival , the best film Denis Villeneuve has made since Prisoners three years ago, and one of 2016’s finest films.
Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story, Eric Heisserer’s script follows Louise (Amy Adams), a linguist who is called on by the U.S. military to lead studies of and communications with an alien species that has landed on Earth. What’s mostly impressive about his script is how it seems to never, ever veer left-of-center.
Despite crawling at a snail’s pace (deliberately and effectively so), the script never once goes off to examine a random character’s backstory or something happening somewhere else with other characters. Instead, we’re always with Louise or Jeremy Renner’s Ian, resulting in a two-hour journey that never deviates from its central focus: language, humanity, and, of course, aliens.
The aliens in this film are seen, but always through fog, and the brilliance of it is that we don’t really care. What the film does so well is make us interested in the subject of just why the beings have arrived and what they want with mankind. We’re invested in Louise’s studies of their language and we desperately want to see more of these creatures even if we just want to know what they’re going to say next.
By the time the third act arrives, events spiral so far out of control that it feels like you’re watching a different movie, and for me, it totally worked. It’s one of those endings that changes everything that came before it, and therefore it’s one of those movies that you want to see again the minute it’s over.
Finally, I couldn’t possibly talk about this film without mentioning the cinematography and production design, both of which rank among the very best of the entire year (and for my money, the decade). This is a gorgeous looking film, and just like Prisoners , it’s the kind of movie that keeps you entertained even during the slow sequences just because of the visual appeal. You can almost taste this movie.
Arrival is a slow and calculated sci-fi movie that treats its audience as if they have intelligence. It’s wonderful to experience a movie like this when most sci-fi films these days seek the bigger-and-better tactic by giving more explosions and special effects. Some of that stuff is here, but no one is going to walk out talking about it.
No, Arrival is a movie to think about, one that doesn’t end when the credits roll, but rather once you go home, lay on the couch, close your eyes, and let its events sink into your being. It’s The Tree of Life for science-fiction movies, and you’ll know what I mean once you see it.
And you should totally, definitely see it.