Arrival *** out of 4 stars
starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
directed by Denis Villeneuve
From 2009’s Polytechnique to last year’s much-admired Sicario, Quebec-born director Denis Villeneuve has managed to create a cinematic-style that ranks him as one of the most excitingly-imaginitive and daring directors out there today. Despite that however, I really wasn’t super-stoked to see his latest film Arrival, which at the surface just seemed like another alien-invasion story, with the obvious outcome of people losing their shit when other-worldly beings randomly appear, or arrive, if you will. Thankfully, I was caught somewhere in the middle after seeing a screening of it last night. Besides having some the presumed sci-fi cliches, and a one-dimensional supporting-cast (Jeremy Renner underplays and stands out), Arrival is a brain-warping art-film epic about language, communication, and time, how it can form us as a universe…or even take us apart. How’s that for timely?
With the help of dreamy cinematography by Bradford Young, the film’s plot cast you right into the wild-blue, starting with supposed flash-backs of Louise (a never-better Amy Adams) speaking to her infant daughter Hannah in their beach-front home, moving to other shots of Hannah as she grows to a certain age, before eventually we see Louise losing her to cancer as a teenager. Alternating time, we then go to Louise, who’s basically a linguistic-genuis, as she goes in to teach a small class of distracted college-kids. There, news reports drop the bomb that huge other-wordly vessels having taken position at 11 different areas around the globe. Just in the nick of time, Louise is then approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, making the most of a typical role) and the rest of the military, asking her to go into the Montana-set vessel to help establish communication with the visitors, along with the help of science-extraordinare Ian (Renner). The scenes of the crew going into the gravity-free ship are a visual-doozy, where in “sessions” they learn how to converse with these hand-like, tentacled creatures, or “heptapods”, through a metaphorical glass wall, the exchanges consisting of written words and the two heptapods making whale-like sounds and spurting circular ink splotches, which signal different words in one. The alien’s are hilariously nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Ian, and it’s established quickly they are not here to cause danger.
From there, Villeneuve’s film then takes it’s own path, making it a Close-Encounters of a different kind. As they continue their study at the Montana-sight, key memories are juxtaposed of Louise and her daughter, building mystery within the film as we find out about the absence of Hannah’s father, and perhaps the real purpose why the visitors are here. Of course, one big message about the film is how we can’t handle anything we don’t understand. It’s Louise and Ian who come at it with open arms, Louise later communicating with no barrier and no need for translation. But when the word “weapon” comes into play, it’s obvious that all hell will break loose. As the different countries cut communication with each other and the Earth starts to unravel, the mystery of it all almost becomes too much, only right before the film’s sudden twist-ending, which has the power to stay in your head and trip you out for days, filling you with a feeling of hope and imagination. It’s a surreal approach that’s greatly done even with missing-pieces, and is very similar to Villeneuve’s work in his highly-underated Enemy.
There’s no doubt this is mostly a one-actor show for Amy Adams, who takes on a narrative that could have been utterly-ridiculous, and instead makes it into something whole and unforgettable, even Oscar-worthy. It’s a tribute to the skills of Adams as an actor and Villeneuve as a visionary that makes Arrival soar. Through his typical steady-pacing and engulfing land-scape shots, and Adams’ best and most heartful performance to date, they make it into a smart sci-fi-mystery film unlike anything else, for which has the power to move you to tears, or even annoy the hell out of you. But no way will you not be knocked sideways.