I’ve always said that the greatest films of all-time are all films that are complex, yet accessible. They also have extensive replay value, whereas you discover something new about them with each viewing. In addition, they are downright beautiful to look at, showcasing the absolute best of the medium of film. But lastly, and most importantly, they treat their audiences with respect. Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, ARRIVAL, fits all these criteria to a T. I may be getting gravely ahead of myself, but in 10 years, I definitely see ARRIVAL being in the conversation amongst the greatest films of all-time.
When 12 extraterrestrial spacecrafts land on Earth, the mission of the populace is to discover the aliens’ true intent – are they friend, or foe? To that end, the U.S. military enlists the aid of Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a renowned linguist, to try and communicate with the visitors. As fear-mongering and hysteria threatens the peace, Dr. Banks makes a discovery that could very well give the people of Earth the answers that they seek.
By far, the strongest aspect of ARRIVAL is its story. It is not your standard “alien invasion” film; quite the contrary, in fact. You could call it the “anti-INDEPENDENCE DAY,” as the film is not defined by its action sequences (there’s only one throughout the entire thing). ARRIVAL is a very slow-paced, methodical type of story that sees itself more as a suspense-thriller, with the hook coming in the form of Dr. Banks’ attempt to communicate with the aliens. This is also the type of story that rewards the audience members who pay attention. It is a little difficult to expand on this point without going into spoiler territory, but there is a twist that is revealed in the final act of the film that I can honestly say caught me off-guard. It added a brilliant dynamic to a story that I thought I’d figured out, while also aiding in the journey to the film’s ultimate resolution. When a plot twist is done for the benefit of the story being told rather than for shock value’s sake (see: INFERNO), it makes the film more enjoyable, and Eric Heisserer’s screenplay accomplishes that in spades.
Another bright spot of ARRIVAL is Amy Adams. Without a doubt, this is one of her best performances as she carries this film on her back. Her character is defined by the emotional range of Adams’ performance; the film gives us some backstory at the start, and using that information, the audience conceives an opinion of her going forward. Amy Adams is able to use that to her advantage to create a character that stays strong in the face of emotional distress, as visions – seemingly of her past – haunt her as she tries to do her job. Her layered backstory also comes into play at the end of the film, and helps make that big twist/reveal that much more powerful. Supporting players include Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, an astrophysicist also recruited by the military, and Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, Banks and Donnelly’s main military contact.
Another noteworthy aspect of ARRIVAL is its gorgeous cinematography. I would love to hear an argument from someone who doesn’t feel that this is simply a beautiful-looking film. Bradford Young’s cinematography helps capture the grandeur of the alien’s arrival, the scope of the spacecrafts themselves, and the tenderness of Dr. Banks’ memories. There is a typically noteworthy scene in the first act of the film – as the military chopper carrying Dr. Banks, Donnelly, and Col. Weber approaches the spacecraft (which landed in Montana of all places), the visual of the spacecraft amongst the green landscape, with an intimidating fog seeping in, is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Cinematography, when done well, helps emphasize the notion of film as a work of art, and ARRIVAL helps to carry on that tradition.
I can’t possibly recommend ARRIVAL enough, however, keep in mind that it does cater to a certain audience. As such, people may get turned off by its slow pace and lack of giant explosions. If that is your type of film, I would stay away from ARRIVAL. But if you like your films to challenge you, if you like stunning cinematography, strong acting performances, and a downright fascinating story, then run (don’t walk) to see ARRIVAL. I personally look forward to multiple repeat viewings in the future; films like ARRIVAL invite that. For an absolutely breathtaking theatrical experience that tests your every preconceived notion on alien invasion sci-fi, look no further. Highly recommended.