By John Corrado
★★★½ (out of 4)
After twelve egg-shaped alien spaceships land around the world, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try and communicate with the otherworldly visitors in Montana.
Teaming up with Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise takes a methodical approach to attempting communication, trying to teach the squid-like creatures simple words and phrases so they can start asking them questions about their intentions on earth.
But the other nations are getting restless and want to hit the ships with military force, threatening to start a global war, as Louise and Ian race against time to decode the inky, cryptic symbols the aliens keep writing in response on the wall of glass that separates them during their interactions.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, and featuring moody cinematography by Bradford Young, Arrival offers a fresh and unique approach to the usual aliens have landed premise. The story unfolds mostly at the research base and inside the sparse interior of the spaceship, with glimpses of the protests and political negotiations happening around the world shown through video feeds on computer monitors. This is a fascinatingly minimalistic approach to science fiction, which is precisely why it works so well, and the film unfolds with simmering suspense that ratchets up as the story reveals its true intentions.
The film often has a quiet and reflective tone, more grounded by human emotion than big budget set pieces. It imagines a plausible scenario of what might actually happen in the days following an alien landing, and uses that as a mirror with which to examine the grieving process. This is as much a quiet character study as it is a thought provoking sci-fi film, and it’s equally affective on both accounts, dealing with tough questions of both interplanetary visitations and personal trauma.
There is a moving backstory involving Louise’s young daughter, which is perfectly established in the melancholy prologue, and provides the heart of the film. It’s an emotional arc that Amy Adams portrays beautifully. The actress explores the depths of her character’s sombre and almost spiritual journey to profound understanding and healing, delivering a nuanced and deeply affecting performance that ranks among her finest work. The supporting work by Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker is also solid.
Although there are a few twists at the end that feel a bit overly convenient, they in many ways just add to the depth of the conversations audiences are sure to have after the film. Filled with heady and cerebral ideas about communication and the passage of time, Arrival is a piece of smart and ambitious science fiction, that has a beating heart and keeps us engaged by making us think.