Arrival is a new sci-fi movie that takes a serious science fiction approach to the topic of visitors from another world. We're all used to seeing these beings come down ready for a fight and it being up to the military and a rag-tag band of heroes to come together and defeat them for the good of the world. Well, this is different. Arrival's angle is to go far more wondrous and even celebratory in the discovery of advanced beings, with characters wanting to understand and communicate with these creatures, who may very well have a positive end goal in mind for the human race.
It takes elements from some of the non-battle sci-fi films of the past, movies like Contact or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is an adult drama with intelligent characters played sensitively and sympathetically by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Adams is the star of the film, a linguistics expert named Louise Banks, who's done translation work for the military before and is called on to help the government when twelve UFO's land in geographically different sites around the globe. Louise teams up with Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist, and the two work around the clock for months to figure out a system of communication with the creatures in their pod, who resemble massive, gray, scaly claws that write and think in images.
The wonder of language is detailed expertly in this film, an aspect of science that is rarely featured in the movies, while Louise is haunted by memories of her late daughter, a subplot that will inform the film in emotional and unexpected ways. The emotional depths this movie plunders are breathtaking, precisely because you're not expecting it to hit so hard. The pain of memory, life, death, and love are wrought out of every inch of the story, along with sequences that don't bother to bowl you over with extravagant special effects, but instead focus on the realism and shock that would come from genuine otherworldly contact with humanity. The screenplay makes use of every plot point involving the world powers' competition to make contact with their arriving visitors, and ties all threads together for a finish that gives us a conclusion that's both simpler and more satisfying than anything we saw in puzzle box movies like Interstellar or Inception. It's also a celebration of science and international cooperation in a similar fashion to last year's The Martian, but takes its subject seriously and with enough self-assured realism from director Denis Villeneuve to not have to rely on 70's pop hits or manufactured jokes aimed at attracting a mass audience.
Amy Adams turns in yet another steady, affecting performance that's trickier than it looks to pull off, given the nature and timing of certain revelations in the script. As one of our most reliable and underrated actresses, she brings us along for this character's emotional journey and inner conflict more convincingly than anyone else could have. She is the heartbeat of this film, and without her presence the gutpunching nature of the movie's climactic resolution would not exist. An adult, intelligent drama that manages to convey scientific resolve, hope, wonder and emotion is a rare cinematic feat.
* * * *