Denis Villenueve’s Arrival opens with an emotional gut punch. While difficult to discuss without spoiling too much, it is effective at establishing Dr. Louise Brooks (Amy Adams) as the poignant center of this story. It’s also important in signaling to the audience the kind of film they are about to watch. Those expecting a sci-fi film mired in technical detail will be largely surprised at the narrative, based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang.
Using science fiction as a vehicle for emotional heft, Villenueve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have made one of the most profound and timely films in recent memory.
The film follows Louise, a brilliant professor of languages at an unnamed university, as 12 unidentified objects float down from the stars. As they hover above the earth at random locations around the globe, worldwide panic is immediate. But when US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) visits Louise to add her to a team of scientists (including Jeremy Renner as mathematician Ian Donnelly) to study the spacecraft’s inhabitants, she jumps at the chance.
Weber’s team joins an international coalition working together to understand the aliens’ purpose. With tensions high between governments, and some threatening premature retaliation against a perceived potential threat to humanity, Louise and Ian must race against a ticking clock to come to an understanding with the aliens.
On the surface, Arrival recalls typical science fiction tropes, more at home in a summer blockbuster than a restrained drama. But Villenueve deserves credit for creating an atmosphere that demands to be taken seriously. Shot with a grounded, unflinching touch by Brandon Young (of Selma fame), the film never overplays its hand. Instead, it offers slow-burning tension in the place of action or violence. Villenueve, best known for Prisoners and last year’s action thriller Sicario, takes advantage of the unknown. He deserves accolades for his restraint in revealing the mysteries in Louise’s story.
Much of Arrival’s success depends on Adams’ performance. Her portrait of Louise strikes a delicate balance between curiosity and determination, essential in every story about discovery. But Adams is careful never to hide Louise’s vulnerability, especially as she recalls painful memories throughout the film. It is a performance so magnetic that it’s impossible to look away. Adams should prepare for a busy awards season.
Beneath all the film’s technical and narrative achievements lay themes that make it unexpectedly timely. It’s no secret that recent political events revealed a great ideological divide in this country, probably larger than many expected. Protests were common over the past week, as well as calls for acceptance and comfort in an uncertain world.
Amid all of this, there is an urgent desire for heartfelt communication, and a need to heal the divide. It’s a reality that Arrival tackles head-on. As tensions over the aliens’ purpose rises, Weber severs ties with the other teams of scientists. Conflict and potential catastrophe emerge from this as both sides’ refuse to reach out, and the world faces a great struggle in its attempts to avoid war between nations.
Luckily, Villenueve ends on a note of optimism, imploring his audience to face the darkness with hope. It is a message that will resonate with many, to the point of tears. Louise fights through opposition, sadness and struggle by deciding to simply act. Right now, we all need her strength.
Watch the trailer for Arrival below: