“Arrival” is a science-fiction film that is very difficult to talk about. The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve (pronounced DenEE Vilehnoove, “Prisoners”, “Enemy”, “Sicario”, and stars Amy Adams (“Man of Steel”, “Enchanted”). The problem with saying much more about the film is that the story’s impact relies heavily on knowing as little as possible about it before watching it. Even discussing the film’s quality is problematic. The writing, directing, acting, and visual style are all outstanding; however, the slow pace—which bolsters the narrative—may put off some who are used to flashy sci-fi like the modern “Star Trek” films or last year’s “The Martian”.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who is shocked one day to discover that 12 spacecrafts—likely from another planet—have landed in 12 separate locations across the globe. Dr, Banks and mathematics expert Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) have been tasked by the U.S. government to uncover the secrets behind these mysterious events.
Meanwhile, scientists and military from the around the world are looking for the same answers, but conflict arises when they don’t exactly come to the same conclusions as the Americans. That’s about all you need to know about the plot. Revealing anything more about the story or how it is told could negatively impact your experience of the movie. Please trust, however, that the plot takes several surprising turns that elevate it beyond that of a typical alien-invasion tale.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer does an outstanding job with keeping the characters’ actions and decisions easy to understand, despite the complexity of their motivations, or of the linguistics/science that informs their behavior. This is a sci-fi film closer in style and substance to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” than “Independence Day”.
The true star of “Arrival” is director Denis Villeneuve, who along with Heisserer weaves a many-layered narrative that keeps you invested from start to finish. That’s not to say, however, that Amy Adams and the rest of the cast don’t deliver great performances which greatly enhance the film. Adams in particular puts on a show. Her character Dr. Banks is glue that binds the whole story together, and the emotional journey she undergoes throughout the film is spellbinding. Jeremy Renner and the rest of cast are also great, but Adams, Villeneuve, and Heisserer are most responsible for the film’s high quality.
“Arrival” is the perfect example of the thinking man’s sci-fi, and movies of this kind are not always for everyone. Although the story covers high-concept ideas like visitors from another world and global consequences, the plot for the most part stays laser-focused on Dr. Banks’ character arc. While the visual style and cinematography are stunning, don’t go into this movie expecting any action set-pieces. Also, the pacing does seem a little slow in the middle, as the complex ideas and plot points may take some to time to get used to.
Overall, “Arrival” is an extraordinary film. The story is unique and incredibly well-written. The actors superbly bring life to the surprising and engaging story. Most of all, the skillful direction brings all of the pieces together into one enthralling film.