Immediately after seeing Arrival, I met up with a few friends for drinks. With the film still fresh in my mind, I mentioned I had just seen it and had earned a recommendation only to get puzzled looks from many of them. “Arrival? Isn’t that the one with Chris Pratt?” one of them asked. “No, that’s Passengers,” I corrected. “So it’s a sequel?” another asked. I was very much tempted to say that it was part of a trilogy – I can hardly hold my breath for Departure!
Despite the positive buzz surrounding the film (plus those endless YouTube ads!), I sadly didn’t find many people who were aware of it other than a few who asked if it was the movie with the football UFO’s.
Arrival‘s story begins with the tragic death of linguist Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) only daughter. Alone and vulnerable, her life suddenly turns around when twelve oblong UFO’s land in random destinations around the globe and she is called in by the U.S. military to help decipher a method of communication with the strange beings inside. Along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they venture into the spacecraft as the world is thrust into chaos over the aliens’ possible purpose on earth.
Those expecting an action or horror spectacular should look elsewhere. This is a true science fiction film, a genre that has seen a welcome return in the last few years with the successes of films like Ex Machina and The Martian – films that took the time to ponder possibilities, theoretics, and solutions rather than callously darting off to the next action set piece or gory obliteration.
The pace may be slow-moving to some but it’s vital to the story, theming, and sense of scale. To reveal more about the plot, twists, and outcomes would be a terrible transgression. This is one of those rare films that incites a completely different viewpoint upon a second watch and, more importantly, it works brilliantly (despite a few minor, though completely forgivable, cheats here and there). And what’s more: it respects the intelligence of its audience, rarely falling into the trap of spoon-feeding ideas or downgrading surrounding characters’ intelligence levels to falsely inflate others. In a film where communication and its relationship with perception and understanding are key themes, Arrival hits the right balance of exposition and experience presenting these themes in ways which go beyond expectations.
Jeremy Renner adds a few appropriate laughs here and there and Forest Whitaker presents an expectedly gruff army colonel but the film rests almost entirely on Amy Adams’ character. Without doubt, this is one the year’s best performances and perhaps the finest of her career thus far. No matter how strong the ideas and presentation of Arrival are, they would all fall squarely flat without a genuine, accessible portrayal that Adams nails. What could have been melodramatic nonsense or a somber, disinterested mood-fest in less capable hands, Adams instead brings to life from beginning to end.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) continues to impress with a visually stunning yet intimate result. The long take reveal of the UFO in a fog covered meadow alone is worth seeing on the big screen. If Arrival falls short in any areas, it’s with the standard yet run-down concept of militaristic reprisal to the “invaders” with one scene taking a page straight out of Robert Zemeckis‘ Contact but with far less consequence.
Regardless, Arrival ranks near the top of “realistic” extra-terrestrial contact films in the good company of Contact (which, oddly enough, featured more travel as opposed to Arrival which features more contact), The Abyss (which I still feel is an underrated classic), and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind (still the top of the game). It may not be the most thrilling edge-of-your-seat space drama of the year (I’ll leave those expectations with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), but it doesn’t try to be that or insert any fluff for higher marketability. It’s a show of confidence to appreciate and a film I’ll definitely be revisiting later for a different experience.