Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Eric Heisserer based on the short story by Ted Chiang.
Starring: Amy Adams (Dr. Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg (Agent Halpern), Mark O'Brien (Captain Marks), Abigail Pniowsky (Hannah - 8 yrs. old), Tzi Ma (General Shang), Jadyn Malone (Hannah - 4 yrs. old), Julia Scarlett Dan (Hannah - 12 yrs. old), Larry Day (Deputy Director of the CIA Dan Ryder), Max Walker (Pvt. Miller), Carmela Nossa Guizzo (Hannah -4 yrs. old), Christian Jadah (Private Combs), Frank Schorpion (Dr. Kettler).
Spoiler Warning: I’m going to try not to spoil too much about Arrival in this review – but I think this is one of those films that works best if you know nothing about it. Rest assured, it is a great movie – and you should definitely see it.
Twelve identical, huge, shell shaped spaceships land on earth – in all different locations, and no one knows what they hell they are they are for. Once every 18 hours, a door opens, and people are allowed in for a short period of time. They are escorted to a dark room with a window. There are tentacled creatures on the other side. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has been put in charge of trying to communicate with the aliens at the American site – but how do you communicate with creatures you share nothing in common with? Even if you think you are getting through to them, how can you be sure?
Arrival is a sci-fi film about humans first contact with aliens which ends up being a more inward journey that an outward one. There is little action in the movie – this isn’t Independence Day or War of the Worlds – but rather a film that is actually about language – how we communicate with each other. Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, and directed by Denis Villeneuve – that wonderful French Canadian director who once against proves just how versatile he can be – Arrival is a film that toys with the audience – using cinematic language to hide its twists and turns in plain sight – building to a devastating climax.
Villeneuve’s last film was the border crossing drug film Sicario – and like that film, Arrival is also focused on a female protagonist in a male dominated world. In Sicario, Emily Blunt is gradually backgrounded – she becomes a supporting character in her own story, but that was precisely the point of the film – everyone used her, and discarded her when they no longer needed her. Amy Adams’ Louise Banks is different. If you’re a parent, like me, you may find yourself crying in the first moments of Arrival – as the film shows in a few brief moments Louise’s life with her daughter Hannah – who we know dies as a teenager because of some sort of disease. Throughout the film, we will flash to Louise and Hannah at various stages – their life as mother and daughter providing some sort of insight that Louise draws on when talking to the aliens. The aliens have a completely different kind of language – there seems to be little correlation between what they say, and their writing – the written language is not linear, but circular, which tells you a lot about them.
Much of the impact of the film is because of Adams, one of our best actresses, delivering one of her best performances. When the film opens she is lonely and alone – a linguistics professor, who spends much of her time by herself. She is visited by the army in the form of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) – who wants her to come with him to the shell in Montana that is making worldwide news. She is eventually partnered with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – a physicist, who disagrees with her assertion that language is basis for the universe – arguing science is - the movie doesn’t give him much of a chance to make his case. From there, the rest of the movie is all about communication and the roadblocks to it – not just between the humans and the aliens, but between the various countries – many of whom do not listen to each other in any real way.
Adams is great in the role. You could accuse the film of being overly sentimental – like many viewers felt like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was – but Adams’ performance bucks that trend. While her work is heartbreaking – it never crosses over into the maudlin. She is a strong character – a woman who decides to make a leap, knowing the pain that is coming, but does so anyway. Arrival ends up being a science fiction with a brain, as well as a heart. It doesn’t overload the film with action – as what normally happens, but is hardly a dry and emotionless film. Its science fiction film at its finest.