PLOT: After mysterious alien ships appear around the globe, a linguist (Amy Adams) is recruited by an army colonel (Forest Whitaker) in order to help communicate with the visitors and learn their intentions.
REVIEW: ARRIVAL is a major departure for director Denis Villeneuve. While already regarded as one of the great current directors thanks to his masterful recent efforts like INCENDIES, PRISONERS and SICARIO, those could all be termed merciless, pessimistic takes on the very worst aspects of human nature. By contrast, ARRIVAL shows humanity at its very best, with most of the characters here optimistic about humanity’s first contact with aliens. Even Forest Whitaker’s hard-nosed colonel is more than willing to give Amy Adams’s academic and Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist as much leeway as they need in order to keep the lines of communication open and hopeful. Yes, there is some pessimism in the form of Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA agent and quick glimpses at a different climate in China and among the general populace, but there’s no trigger-happy baddie, with conflict being confined to only a very small part of the film.
As such, this is no alien-invasion thriller, but rather a thoughtful look at first contact that has more in common with CONTACT than ID4. Working from an extremely sophisticated screenplay by Eric Heisserer, ARRIVAL refuses to talk down to its audience, taking for granted their ability to keep up. This is the correct approach, as it winds up feeling like one of the more intelligent, adult-driven science-fiction films in recent memory.
It’s grounded by Amy Adams’s leading role, that’s among the best showcases she’s ever had. Too often stuck in supporting roles, Adams is the whole show here. Potentially Oscar-worthy, it’s a difficult part with her having to simultaneously convey the character’s academic nature as well as her very human fear of what turns out to be towering, Octopus-like beings that communicate in tones that are so traumatic they can kill. She’s also shown to be reeling from the loss of her young daughter to a rare disease, with much of the film cutting back and forth to her experience of motherhood and how, in a way, teaching her own child language isn’t all that different from what her job is with the aliens.
By contrast, Renner has a somewhat lighter part, being the one who’s able to give the film some comedic relief now and then, dubbing the two alien communicators “Abbott & Costello”, and having a nice easy-going rapport with Adams, his former AMERICAN HUSTLE co-star. Whitaker also hits some unexpected notes in what would normally be the tough-guy military part, giving the character a real sense of wanting to do right by humanity and being reluctant to make any destructive knee-jerk decisions.
Notably, ARRIVAL marks a visual departure from Villeneuve’s recent films, with rising indie DP Bradford Young taking over from Roger Deakins, giving this a more stripped-down but just as effective look. While essentially a sci-fi outing, the CGI is mostly minimalist, while Johann Johannsson’s score is, appropriately, more driven by emotion than spectacle - just like the film.
It all comes together remarkably well, with Villeneuve proving himself to be very adept at telling a more hopeful story, while still giving it his own distinctive stamp (emphasizing realism over wonder). ARRIVAL is another outing that will further his reputation as one of our great directors, which bodes well for his upcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel. This is thoughtful, beautifully crafted, spectacularly acted sci-fi that treats the genre seriously and will no doubt be warmly received by just about everyone and is undoubtedly a must-see.