This is sci-fi at its most cerebral.
I love having to think during a film, and you have to pay attention to Arrival if you hope to follow along. And that is not a bad thing.
Warning though… if anyone thinks that this film is an alien invasion movie, you will be desperately disappointed. This is a slow burn story of trying to understand what the arrival of these aliens means and how we can communicate. It is more like First Contact than Independence Day.
Twelve spaceships arrive on the planet earth, scattered everywhere with no discernible pattern, and the governments of the world are forced to work together to decipher what the purpose of this arrival is. The US government recruited linguist extraordinaire Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist/mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to head up teams in an attempt to communicate with the aliens.
That’s about as much as I can tell you about the plot without spoiling it. And the story “twist” is worth going into unspoiled. I did spot the twist a little earlier than the reveal, but it still was excellent.
Amy Adams is outstanding. Her understated performance as the main hope for being able to bring the two races together is wonderful and has created some well-deserved Oscar buzz. Adams is the heart of the movie easily.
The other cast members, including Renner and Forest Whitaker, do a fine job, but they all play second fiddle to Adams.
There really is almost zero action scenes, and yet the film was very dramatic and intense. In fact, if there had been some action here, it would have felt out of place. The suspense was created by the story and the mystery, not the plot contrivances of the movie and that is a welcome change.
This was science fiction leaning heavily on the science part. Even when we are with the aliens, this movie approaches it like a science experiment. I really liked this for a change. It was a smart sci-fi film that did not have to depend on sci-fi violence to sell it. It is based on performances and writing. And Arrival had both of those in spades.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) brings yet another voice to the world of sci-fi, much like he did to the world of the drug cartels with Sicario. It could have been easy to take this in a different direction, but his vision of what sci-fi could be won out and you have a movie that is one of the best ones of the year.
You absolutely come out of Arrival thinking about what you have seen. I am sure there were countless discussions about it in the car ride home. (A couple I sat next to said that they were excited to discuss this on the way home.) I think kids will probably be bored, but for those who appreciate intelligent films, this is one of the best.