Arrival is exactly the kind of sci-fi film I’ve been waiting for all my life.
There are no guns, no star wars, no green men, no space cowboys, no mutually-assured destruction. The aliens touch down, and we’re not sure what their intentions are. Do we fire lasers at them? No. We study them. We gather together top academics, and we attempt to learn, peacefully (with the army on speed dial, just in case).
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks. Of all the people on Earth talking to aliens, she’s the one who listens well enough to actually crack the code. And it’s a hell of a code, unlike anything our puny human brains can really comprehend. This deep gulf of understanding makes plenty of people nervous – people with their fingers hovering over big red buttons. Annihilation-type buttons. Dr. Banks puts her own life at risk to keep things from escalating to an out-and-out global (universal? galaxal?) war.
Amy Adams is as good at playing Dr. Banks as Dr. Banks is at solving language problems. Both are beautiful to watch. Director Denis Villeneuve worked doggedly to make sure all the science is sound, but it’s also almost magical. It makes me want to call it the movie Interstellar aspired to be: rooted in science, hinging on human connection.
Arrival is the most intimate of sci-fi films, the aliens (if that’s what they are) almost incidental to humanity’s expanding comprehension of time and memory. It’s like poetry. And it doesn’t hurt one bit that visually, it’s slick as hell. Bradford Young’s cinematography is nearly stark, but it is absolutely arresting. It works in synchronicity with a hauntingly beautiful score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Twinned together they remind you that though the plot feels startlingly realistic for a sci-fi film, there’s something otherworldly at play. Young’s work is atmospheric, Jóhannsson’s is pulsating.
It’s refreshing to have an alien encounter that relies on communication rather than violence, and to have a woman stepping in as Hero(ine) feels only natural. In fact, the only part of the movie that didn’t gel for me is a 2-minute montage that serves to pilot the plot further ahead and is narrated by Ian (Jeremy Renner). The rest of the story is told completely through the eyes of Louise, so to have her voice suspended during these few scenes is jarring and emotionally blunting.
Adams, though, is faultless; she turns out a character that is mature and complex, and I won’t be one bit surprised to see her name alongside Natalie Portman’s, and likely Emma Stone’s, come Oscar time.