Finally, in a year full of disappointing sequels and ill-advised reboots, “Arrival” *ahem* arrives to deliver a must-see experience that challenges as much as it entertains. Director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to last year’s phenomenal “Sicario” may not have bombastic action sequences at every turn, but this isn’t that kind of sci-fi epic. This is the kind of film that requires viewers to pay attention to the details to put together a beautiful puzzle of a film. There’s been early Oscar-buzz for “Arrival,” and the hype is warranted. This is classic sci-fi of the highest order.
“Arrival” follows linguist Louise Banks (an Oscar-worthy Amy Adams) as she assists the military in trying to communicate with aliens who have landed 12 mysterious objects around the world. Joining her are a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) and a U.S. Army Colonel (Forest Whitaker) as the question of why the aliens have landed on Earth begins to create tensions throughout the world. Banks proceeds to try and decipher the alien language before the world governments declare war on the aliens.
While this plot explanation may be basic, it’s important to avoid as many spoilers as possible with “Arrival.” As the story unfolds, there’s an intense emotional current that carries the film in unexpected ways. This is a mystery waiting to be unraveled. “Why are the aliens here?” is the central question and the film tightens its grip on the audience as it makes us wait at the edge of our seats, anticipating every single revelation. Make no mistake; this is a slow-burn, sci-fi drama/thriller that requires patience, not an action blockbuster with constant explosions. Director Denis Villeneuve understands engaging drama doesn’t come from constant action, instead focusing his attention on the human drama of the story. While the film could have been a beautifully shot alien invasion film, Villeneuve flips it into something more human and emotionally investing.
A huge reason “Arrival” succeeds is Adams. The rest of the cast is phenomenal, but Adams carries the emotional weight of the film as a woman plagued with grief who’s thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Banks is a character the audience finds a great deal of sympathy for and throughout the film, Adams nails every single emotional beat to make sure viewers don’t leave the theater without misty eyes. It’s a softly devastating performance that needs to be seen to truly appreciate.
The film is absolutely gorgeous in the cinematography and music department as well. Villeneuvue’s films always look great, but here, wide shots of the alien ship hovering in a field as fog rolls in are truly magnificent sights. Props to cinematographer Bradford Young who really captures the grand scope of the film while still retaining a subdued atmosphere. The soundtrack from Johann Johannsson is fantastic, complementing the artsy visuals and relying on string arrangements to nail the heaviest moments of the film.
Everything in “Arrival,” from the breathtaking visuals to the pitch-perfect performances, works beautifully, but all that praise can’t do anything but prepare you for a film that aims to understand the human experience more than any invasion film in history. The idea of the world solving issues through communication is a profound message the film never lets the audience forget. By the end of “Arrival,” you’re left with a work that’s one of the most deeply powerful, emotional and poignant films in years. By the end, “Arrival” left me immensely affected. I sat in the theater wide-eyed with my jaw to the floor at the end, rushing out to avoid tear-filled eye contact with anyone. I left the film contemplating philosophical questions, putting together the delightfully puzzling narrative that resonated the more I thought about it. “Arrival” is the best film of 2016 and if the Oscars have any sense of credibility (eh…), it would be a major contender this upcoming awards season. This is sci-fi that transcends the genre, giving audiences something far more interesting than anything we could have expected.