Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Beauty, in the simplest of terms, is what's seen in the quiet. In Denis Villeneuve's alien invasion drama, it's beauty that envelopes everything. Arrival appears, on the outside, to be an ill-timed blockbuster flick, but instead percolates at an intentionally slow pace, making it less about the doom and more about the journey of life and everything it encompasses. Feeling like a cross between Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a Terrence Malick picture, Arrival is a sensory treat.
It happens pretty fast. In the blink of an eye, twelve alien aircraft are positioned around the planet, hovering over seemingly random locations. Quick to determine what threat level these ships offer, the US government pulls together top military personnel, scientists and scholars, including Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist with a past riddled with loneliness and heartbreak.
Working with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and reporting to unimpressed Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise's approach to communicating with and understanding these unfamiliar creatures tests the patience and resilience of the US government and her own fears. When the fateful connection is finally made, it becomes a battle between time, knowledge, and universal humanity.
Arrival is first and foremost an intelligent package of scientific terror that only Hollywood could create. Following cues from greats like Spielberg, the creatures themselves are uneasy because we barely get to fully encounter them (though you do see them, it's very specific when that's allowed).
In its delivery as a thriller, director Villeneuve allows artistry to shine over cliche sequences. It's visually stunning. While it would have been great to see what Roger Deakins could have done, especially after his incredible work for Villeneuve in Prisoners and Sicario, cinematographer Bradford Young gives us sweeping landscapes and close-up character studies. Like Villeneuve's particularly crafted pace, Young's mixture of cinematic styles helps to create a structured story that clearly has more to it than a science fiction feature.
Adams is even more elusive than the technical achievements. While her talents are no secret, her quiet and focused performance as Louise is top tier. As the film moves into its finale and pieces of the story are shattered, making way for a eloquently moving twist, Adams provides a generous mix of personal redemption and acceptance and strength. Louise has more to her than meets the eye. It's a tender portrait of intelligence and emotion.
Renner and Whitaker give noteworthy supporting turns, with Renner specifically shining in a role somewhat different than his recent work.
Villeneuve has a great way of building a story. Prisoners was a shocking whodunit that didn't let up until the credits rolled. Sicario was a shocking character study that slowly built to an impressive denouement. Arrival is a mixture of the two. It has built-in excitement based solely on our understanding of alien films of the past. The unknown is the most bizarre and frightening and exciting element of them all. Instead of exploring what could happen, with violence and fear, Villeneuve allows for an opposite approach. Arrival becomes a testament to wonder, acceptance, and inclusion. Sometimes, stopping and listening is the best defense one can have.
It's beautiful to watch. The music, composed by the fantastic Johann Johannson, is subtly bombastic. There are moments that feel almost Christopher Nolan-inspired, which may end up being the film's singular fault. However, even with that in mind, Arrival is a refreshing entry into the science fiction realm and a definite game changer in the world of prestige, awards season motion pictures.
It's an unlikely masterpiece.
Runtime: 116 min