Arrival is the type of film that screenwriters will be accused of ripping off for years to come. While sci-fi has always leant itself to being the more “brainy” genre, it seems as of late that our sci-fi pictures just slide into easy action-adventure pieces or unsuccessful attempts at “trying to make a bigger point.” Arrival is not unsuccessful. Arrival does have a bigger point to make. While the subtext of any movie can be interesting, where Arrival rises to greatness is that the actual story at hand is just as heart wrenching as its themes are poignant.
This movie is good.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, Arrival tells the story of various world governments responding to the (what for it…) arrival of alien spacecraft around the world. Whitaker plays a military man tasked with gathering the best scientists (Renner) and linguists (Adams) the nation has to offer in order to communicate with the space visitors. Here we have the basic setup for a standard sci-fi movie. There is the larger-than-life conflict threatening human existence contrasted against some characters that just have to learn to get along. Arrival may have a basic premise, but nothing about this film is mediocre. The film takes its simple setup and tells one of the most thoughtful, beautiful stories in recent memory.
The magnitude of Arrival’s beauty is the result of the perfect trinity of Amy Adams, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Heisserer’s smart screenplay (based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang) has done its homework, both intellectually and emotionally. On the intellectual side, we get a glimpse of a linguist encountering a group of people and using whatever tools available to learn a new language. Though it may be simplified a bit (a “translation montage” is needed in order for the story to progress in a timely manner), there is no Rosetta Stone for speaking alien, and the film does a good job informing the audience the basics in translation.
The emotional strength of the story is brought to life by Adams. Her performance is wonderful and she is able to take the audience along the powerful journey Heisserer has written. It’s strange trying to write about Arrival. The very act of praising the screenplay or Adams’ performance might wade into spoiler territory. I don’t plan on getting into spoilers, but know this, there is an emotional core to this film that is immensely powerful. The way in which Adams’ relationships with others is developed is both life-affirming and just emotionally draining. These are the bigger-than-life themes that a lot of sci-fi films try to communicate, none are as successful as Arrival is.
Villeneuve has made a name for taking straight forward premises (see Sicario) and delivering some of the most thought provoking pieces of cinema this decade (see Prisoners, Enemy), it is no different here. Outside of its strong story, one of the best aspects of Arrival is that it is just so beautiful. Whether it be our introduction to the alien craft or some smaller character moments, the cinematography and direction is 100% purposeful and gorgeous.
Though I’m not sure the film works as a simple “first contact” story on its face value, I don’t think that matters. The scope of Arrival’s goals make the basic “how do we defeat the aliens” story moot, it simply doesn’t matter. So while we have the setup of a humans-encounter-aliens story, the message of the movie overshadows that basic structure for a more thoughtful piece.
The film is about love. Whether it be the “love your neighbor” motif that is explored through world leaders succeeding/failing to work together, or the personal love that two characters can share. This is where Arrival truly needs to be experienced to understand. As we are going along there are hints and clues as to what this movie is about, and when the big “reveal” shows up I was left speechless.
This is a film about working together and respecting the humanity in us all. This is a film that has a really cool take on how humans would respond to alien invaders. This is a movie that has the most surprising amount of heart and emotion I may have ever seen. Best of all, the movie has a good pace taking us through all of these big themes. As we learn about this new world with other worldly creatures, we also learn about these human characters in a powerful way; it all works together and Arrival is one of the best films of the year.
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