Arrival is one of the frontrunners in this current award season and the hype is deserved. This is brainy sci-fi for intelligent audiences, which means it is not a bravura shoot-em-up-with-laser-beams in the vein of Star Wars or Independence Day. I would say it is in the territory of Contact, but thankfully without the kitsch sentimentalism. This is Close Encounter of the Interstellar Kind.
Linguistic professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called upon by the military led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) when a dozen shell-shaped spaceships appear at different locations on Earth. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she is tasked with interpreting what the aliens want.
That’s it, saying anything more of the plot would ruin a profoundly unique and I dare say, spiritual experience. This is based on a simple “what if” scenario, teased out into a larger tapestry and then hitting the climatic note with such panache that you walked out of the cinema hall more in touch with life. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have adapted Ted Chiang’s multiple award-winning short story, Story of Your Life, superbly. We are lulled into a state of awe, then once we are entranced by the strangeness of it all we are entrusted with multiple conceptions of what is right and normal. Villeneuve’s storytelling is hinged on open-ended dialogue, quiet but tense scenes, dream-like cinematography and intensity exuding from characters in stressful situations. Not once does the story talk down to you, explaining difficult concepts through simplistic expositions. The narrative respects you enough to connect the dots (or circles) yourself.
The story isn’t just a clever intellectual exercise, it also carries great emotional heft. It accomplishes it through Amy Adams’ excellent performance. Her deep emotions of love and loss boiling just beneath her melancholic exterior is a beauty to behold. Louise Banks is our anchor in this strange world and it is through her we not only learn what the aliens want, but we also enter into her mind-space and see her life as a mother.
Despite some minor missteps, Arrival has so much verve that most people will just dismiss them. The whole exercise is stimulating, intelligent and thoughtful, with something wise to say about the human condition. We won’t get many films of this caliber in a year so it would be wise not to miss it. Villeneuve has reached a new epoch in filmmaking with this and I can’t wait to see what he does with Blade Runner 2049.
4 / 5
PS – Even though I would highly recommend the movie, I could also foresee some will not fully understand the final act or get the full thrust of it. Last night, a girl sitting next to me, turned to her partner and said everything was great except the ending which she had to think about more. Coming out into the light from the cinema, I overheard another young man saying the same thing. But in both cases, the statements didn’t come out as complaints but more of “why wasn’t I able to get it?” I am sure they would have gotten it by now and be wiser for it.