Your first thought upon hearing the plot line of Arrival, in which a dozen alien spaceships land in different spots on Earth, is probably “Here we go again.” And yes, the alien sub-genre of sci-fi movies is a crowded and often predictable one. But director Denis Villeneuve has a lot more in mind with this intelligent, cerebral and absorbing new film that, among other things, will firmly put five-time Oscar-nominated Amy Adams back in the race.
As I say in my video review above, Adams is transcendent in a role that comes from within and is largely told with her eyes and silences. No, Independence Day this is NOT. Actually, Arrival is more akin to a cross between Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and something that might have been directed by Ingmar Bergman. In fact, it may be the most serious film ever made dealing with the interaction between humans and aliens. It’s a moving story about love, loss, grief, communication, language, memory and our past as a key to unlocking our future. The screenplay comes from Eric Heisserer adapting Ted Chiang’s short tale “The Story Of Your Life,” which was the film’s original title.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor called into duty, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), when 12 oval-shaped spaceships mysteriously begin landing all over the globe. Impatient Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) sends them both to Montana, site of one of the landings, in order to make contact and quickly determine just what these beings may have in mind. Of course, time is of the essence as people start to panic, cable news goes hog wild, the stock market crashes, and all sorts of stuff happens. But Banks, who is grieving the death of her 12-year-old daughter Hannah, takes her time to get this right and create a language that will start a relationship. As she goes through this fascinating process (I have not seen many linguists portrayed on film in quite this way), she also has memory flashbacks to her own relationship with Hannah as her daughter was growing up. What she eventually discovers brings her close to the secrets of death, and life. The aliens themselves are black, fuzzy, spidery type creatures who are nowhere near the usual Hollywood definition of life from other worlds. It is quite hypnotic to watch the interactions between Banks and them.
This is not necessarily a movie for one-dimensional fanboys who might like the genre but have little patience for a smart, evolving story. Sharp filmgoers, however, are in for a treat. Adams is just terrific here, given the far meatier role than Renner, who nevertheless has his moments. But this is also a story about being a mother, and it should strongly resonate with women. Whitaker is authoritative, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who seems to be in everything these days, does well in a smaller role as a CIA agent. Among the tech credits, Bradford Young’s stunning cinematography is something to see, while Johann Johannsson’s subtly eerie score is something to hear.
Arrival arrived to great acclaim at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and it deserves it. Producers are Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, David Linde, and Aaron Ryder. Paramount Pictures releases the film Friday.
Do you plan to see Arrival? Let us know what you think.