When several UFO spaceships land on various zones around Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the U.S. military to decipher the language patterns of the foreign species residing within with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). As tensions rise across the planet, the duo must race against the clock to uncover the reasons behind why the extraterrestrials have landed, and most importantly – if they are friend or foe.
Making his foray into the science-fiction genre, director Denis Villeneuve has crafted an engaging film about the need for breaking down our self-imposed barriers against the backdrop of catastrophe. Just as with his last few films (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy), Villeneuve has managed to up the ante and deliver an emotional tour-de-force, where intelligence is maximized by a well-devised use of tone and artifice. Arrival is a true thinking-person’s piece of sci-fi, thanks to its human factor and portrayal of cause and effect in even the simplest of manners.
As the story develops, unassuming ideas become complex theories re-embedded into the unfolding situation. The way that screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs the aliens at the center of the film works well as a plot device, in the way they emphasize the innate human feeling of obstacle and offensive action in such an unknowing situation. It is hard to talk much about Arrival’s story progression without giving away key details, it is best seen going in as blind as possible. The very construction of the plotline, adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story ‘The Story of Your Life’ effectively re-determines moments seen previously in a manner that becomes all the more striking.
Once again, Amy Adams proved why she is one of the greatest actresses working in modern cinema, as she effortlessly carries the film across its runtime. Her character captures the sense of wonder needed of the film’s scenario, moving through a range of strong emotions in an almost effortless manner. Jeremy Renner is outstanding as the scientific opposition to Adams’ character’s field of study; at first divided but later working in step with her. While not as showy of a part, Renner makes for a good foil, and his charismatic nature works well for this type of role. The cast is rounded out by Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, who provide great turns that forcefully contribute to the gravitas of the foreboding conflict.
It is also worth noting the cinematography of Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma), which brings a sharp visual style to the table that accentuates the dour mood, especially in the more intimate moments throughout. And lastly, the original score by frequent Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johansson is among the year’s best, haunting while also providing a much needed feeling of solace, activated at all the right moments to give key scenes a much needed boost.
In summation, Arrival is the rare sci-fi blockbuster that is exceedingly special for defying convention, while using a familiar genre scenario to tell a serious story about the need for communication and positive exchange of ideas in humankind. As we are dealing with uncertain times at this moment, it is exactly the kind of film we need right now.