There are only a handful of sci-fi flicks that manage to break free of the mold envisioned by Steven Spielberg, who has been regarded as the grandfather of the genre. His singular sense of wonderment is impossible to ignore in films that, no matter how deviant of cliché they are, so clearly echo that aesthetic. Though it is a joy to see that Spielbergian flare shine through the heady efforts of new filmmakers, that excitement comes with a longing for something altogether new. Leave it to Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian maestro behind “Prisoners,” “Enemy” and “Sicario” (three of the greatest films I’ve seen in the past few years), to bring us that which we have longed to see, but didn’t know we wanted to see (and, in light of recent events, it turns out we need to see it). “Arrival” does showcase the age-old concept of extra-terrestrial beings coming to Earth for unknown purposes, but Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer - based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” - use it as a template to explore the intensely intimate drama of a woman plagued by memory, as well as the nature of language and communication amidst troubling times. It is the most life-affirming sci-fi think piece since “Interstellar.”
When 12 monolithic UFOs, dubbed “Shells," touch down across the globe, expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited to lead a special team in communicating with the beings aboard one Shell that has stopped over Montana. Also on the team is theoretical physicist Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner), who works closely with Louise to decipher the aliens’ cryptic language and figure out why they have come to Earth before the US Army and other international powers take fearful action against the exta-terrestrial visitors. As Louise and the team labor over how to effectively communicate with the aliens, eventually called "Heptapods," she also faces the unbearable challenge of coping with memories of her dead daughter in the process.
As with Villeneuve’s previous work, there is an overt precision and stillness to “Arrival” that slows the effort, but not to a glacial pace. He isn’t as interested in showing us methodically crafted images for their sheer beauty and depth of meaning as he is in allowing us to examine every piece of the film’s puzzle as they fall into place by the time the head-spinning, heart-melting climax rolls around. The whole thing flows so perfectly that nearly any sense of a three-act structure dissipates as you watch the beauty of this enigmatic piece of science fiction unfold. Though the middle of the film loses a bit of steam, Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (“Selma”) treat us to dazzling sights and sounds throughout. Humans have come into contact with aliens in film more times than one can probably remember, but it’s hard to recall a film that combines both the wonder and unease of meeting otherworldly visitors to such an intense degree. Young’s impeccable camerawork coupled with a haunting score from Jóhann Jóhannsson creates the kind of sci-fi magic that is too rarely seen in Hollywood today.
Aliens have not been this captivating on a conceptual level in years, but the true focus of “Arrival” is Louise and her existential journey to break language barriers and heal emotional wounds. Adams is as terrific as ever, but her performance here is unlike anything she has done in the past. Her head is often heavy with sadness, but her melancholy is balanced with a genuine awe of her surroundings. Talking and reacting to thin air that will be replaced with CG creatures seems so easy when she does it. The other actors, particularly Renner, are all great too, but “Arrival” is essentially a one-woman show, and Adams is more than up to the challenge of carrying the film’s brainy themes and emotional weight on her shoulders.
The threat of violence looms in the air from the moment news anchors announce the appearance of the Shells, but unlike other alien-interaction flicks, the boiling tensions among world leaders and militaries, who are represented as men of action rather than defenders of nations, is kept in the background for most of the film. Popular science fiction too often finds excuses to get the two species to square off against each other, so it is incredibly refreshing to see an escalating conflict take the backseat to a story where communication is priority number one when trying to reason with one another. This is what makes “Arrival” as timely as it is timeless. In an age where cinematic action and taking action in the real world dominate the cultural zeitgeist, Villeneuve’s film stands as a beacon of hope for all of humanity, reminding us that if we are to work together towards a better tomorrow, communication and understanding will ultimately get us there.