Review: ARRIVAL Tackles Big Ideas With Pure Elegance

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner star in Denis Villeneuve's thoughtful sci-fi spectacle.

Festivals Editor; Los Angeles, California (@RylandAldrich)
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Review: ARRIVAL Tackles Big Ideas With Pure Elegance

They should have sent a poet.

The imagining of humankind's first contact with alien lifeforms is territory well-mined in popular fiction and probably best executed in Robert Zemeckis's wonderful 1997 film Contact. With such great works in the past, is it really necessary to head back down this path yet again? The answer is an emphatic, Yes. When done well, the subject makes us confront our humanity in unique and cathartic ways. This is absolutely the case in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival – a film that tackles ideas even bigger than our species' role in the universe, and does so with pure elegance.

Like Jodie Foster's Ellie in Contact, the protagonist of Arrival is a brilliant female scientist. This one, Louise, is played by Amy Adams. Unlike Ellie who is an astronomer, Louise is a celebrated linguist. This is because the aliens in Arrival have already made it to Earth, showing up in 12 monolithic ships floating near the surface in 12 seemingly random locations around the planet. The bulk of the drama of the film is figuring out how to communicate with the beings. That makes Louise the person most qualified to head up the USA's efforts in the project.

Louise is scooped up by the military leader of the operation Colonel Weber, played by Forrest Whitaker, and flown to rural Montana where one of the ships towers over a serene valley floor. There she is paired with Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and set to work on the problem. It doesn't take long for the scientists to have their first startling contact with the aliens as they are invited into the ship by a door that opens at periodic intervals to grant them access to a chamber where the aliens can communicate with the humans from the other side of a glass wall.  

Weber is a constantly ticking clock on the operation as tensions are high among world leaders. His focus and the absolute goal of the mission is to figure out what the aliens want before one of the other 11 countries with floating visitors hovering over it gets an itchy trigger finger and either causes world destruction or turns the benign aliens hostile. Whitaker is excellent in this role and his nervous energy is a palpable extension of the very notion that the United States of America might not be in a position of ultimate power.

Villeneuve does an excellent job of balancing the enormous tensions of the situations with the drama in Louise's personal life. While this juxtaposition may seem like simple character work at times, it actually points towards much larger themes that emerge as the team continues its work with the creatures. Without venturing into spoiler territory, there are some very big ideas in Arrival that make us question not just how we interact with our planet and each other, but the very ways we perceive space and time. These are handled delicately but beautifully and the impact has ramifications that keep the viewer reconsidering common assumptions long after the credits role.

It's a rare thing for a film to tackle such challenges and thankfully Villeneuve – who is quickly becoming one of the best directors working today - is absolutely up to the task. This is an entertaining movie through and through, even without the scientific deep dive. But the big ideas are there, and Denis Villeneuve is just the poet to take us on the journey.

Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Arrival opens in theaters throughout North America on Friday, November 11.

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Amy AdamsDenis VilleneuveForest WhitakerJeremy Rennersci-fi

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  • Stu

    Just seen this tonight - phenomenal film on several levels. Adams was riveting. Ideas were challenging. Cinematography was sumptuous.

    Only my second Villeneuve film, but not for long. This dude is firing on cylinders.

  • cjohnston

    Enemy.
    ~
    *that is all.*

  • Kurt

    Fans of some of the headier linguistic ideas expressed in ARRIVAL would be doing themselves a solid to seek out China Mieville's novel EMBASSYTOWN which (surprisingly) covers a lot of the same space, but because it is a book, can go a lot deeper into the nuts and bolts of things

  • cjohnston

    i need say from the start, that - i have Not read said book (so there's that); and am a self-professed bibliophile.
    ---
    With All Due Respect though. ..(after seeing it - once, so far already..) i thought Denis did an absolutely Magnificent job of showing the viewers nuts and bolts of the inside out and the upside down (literally) of the story.
    .....not wishing (at all) to be a Richard here upon the topic.
    Just discuss, converse, mull over, and confabulate.
    ~
    i LOVED and all but ADORED the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas.. .couldn't STAND the book though. WAY more crude and one-dimensional imho......
    ~ ~ ~
    Again - i'm Absolutely NOT trashing this opinion/stance here. ...it just - might not always necessarily be the case though..
    (with All Professionalism and with All Due Respect..)
    ~ ~ ~
    I Hope i do Not offend. ..and i'd Love to hear thoughts, opinions, ....Corrections even,.. .back about this. ..from You - or anyone else for that matter.

  • Kurt

    Rest assured, when you have a full novel there is more room for minutae (hence the nuts and bolts) aspects. As a bibliophile you should check out Embassytown and we can have further discussion. It's a great book.

    No offence, taken, of course!

    (Just to further clarify, ARRIVAL is based on a short story ("The Story Of Your Life" which I have not read) by Ted Chiang.)

    Often movies, particularly science fiction movies, based from short stories (or short novels) adapt best into films because the don't end up being sprawling epics: Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream...), PreDestination (All You Zombies), They Live (8 O'Clock In the Morning), The Thing (Who Goes There?), Minority Report, The Fly, The Time Machine, etc. etc.

  • cjohnston

    Another Grand-Slam review for a(nother) Hotly anticipated film of mine..
    ~
    Kudos, and Thank You.!
    ~ ~ ~
    *verbatim cut and pasted sentiment from the review thread for ELLE; but, what the heck.
    ...second verse, ..same as the first..

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