Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve makes movies that block out the world. From the first to the last frame, his films keep you engaged and, more often than not, transfixed. Building on the success of past movies like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” the director’s latest film, “Arrival,” is arguably the most emotional, thought-provoking and visceral experience he’s crafted yet.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” “Arrival” is a grounded alien invasion tale that poses the question: If first contact was made, how would we communicate with extraterrestrials? That becomes a terrifying reality when mysterious ships begin to land around the world. It’s an unsettling day full of fear and paranoia, but some believe that the aliens may be a symbol of hope and not terror. To find out the aliens’ motivations, Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by the U.S. government to interpret their language and find a way to communicate. At the start of the film, Louise is tired and haunted by visions of her dead daughter, but with the world at stake, she’ll do everything she can to maintain peace between Earth and these beautiful and sparsely designed extraterrestrials, working with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to form a plan before China declares war on the visitors.
“Arrival” quickly invites audiences in with a strong visual motif, intimate flashes of love and pain, and a surprisingly fresh use of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” a song with an aching beauty suited for this melancholic movie. Like most of Villeneuve’s past work, this drama works on many levels. It’s a thrilling piece of spectacle with the highest stakes imaginable, but it’s also a thought-provoking drama with personal stakes. From a character to structure standpoint, Eric Heisserer’s script is just incredibly well-rounded, concise and insightful. Heisserer presents these perfect, subtle insights into these characters’ internal lives – Donnelly gives a simple but powerfully honest response to Louise at one point in the film – while at the same time making the audience hold their breath out of fear, excitement or sadness.
Amy Adams’ performance helps elicit all those feelings. The actress is having a remarkable year with her notably empathetic performances in “Arrival” and Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” Here, she plays a sympathetic, brilliant, courageous, funny, vulnerable and tragic character. Louise is a great protagonist wrestling with world and life-altering questionings. Also, while plenty of science fiction films star novice characters, asking questions purely for the sake of exposition, “Arrival” instead focuses on a character who’s always ahead of the audience. Louise is exciting for that reason alone.
Heisserer forces Louise to face plenty of practical and internal struggles, and how she deals with those conflicts stick with you long after the credits role. The big question of “Arrival” and Louise’s story is unexpected, and it hits you with a wallop of emotion. How Villeneuve and Heisserer answer this question and land the ending is remarkable. At first, it’s a surprising turn, but by the end, it makes complete sense in the body of the story. The payoff doesn’t disappoint.
“Arrival” is a deeply human film. There’s a warmth to how Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”) shot it. Even the location, Montana, is inviting and warm. The sky is neverending and bright, and the grass and sun are vibrant. Villeneuve and his DP show a beautiful world with nuanced characters you actually want to see saved in this race-against-the-clock sci-fi thriller about time and the connections we make in the world.