'Arrival' Is Sci-Fi at Its Smartest and Weirdest

Denis Villeneuve's much-anticipated film, now making the festival rounds, is big on capital "I" ideas and doesn't need show-offy effects to grab you.
September 14, 2016, 7:04pm
All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Warning: Mild spoilers beware. But nothing that would ruin the movie.

It's easy to lose sight of what's remarkable about ArrivaI, the elliptical and eerily gripping slice of hard sci-fi from the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) that is currently doing the fall festival rounds before Paramount begins pushing it on us any day now.

Drawn from Ted Chiang's novella The Story of My Life, Arrival doesn't need showy effects to grab you, although when it does, the movie refuses to let go. It's perhaps the most heady and unusual science-fiction experience a major American studio has issued in some time. One can be forgiven for getting the impression, despite the backing of the studio that regularly brings you Star Trek, that Arrival feels like an anomaly in our hyper-sold-out, everything-must-be-franchised era of popular motion picture entertainment. Unlike Independence Day, this "alien-invasion" film will assuredly not spawn a bogus sequel 20 years from now.


Arrival is big on capital "I" ideas. Aliens can have seven legs, know the future, and only communicate in nonlinear drawings, for instance. But the film is, at its heart, a movie about a woman whose life has been upended by the loss of a child. Photographed with bitter elegance by the young maestro Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year), the slow-burn dread of the thing grips you from the jump, as the movie opens with a free-flowing, time-compressing montage that reveals the short life and grueling death of a young girl from a rare form of cancer. The sequence, similar to one Villeneuve employed in his criminally underrated Jake Gyllenhaal–doppelgänger picture Enemy, encapsulates the life of the protagonist with smooth and haunting fluidity, a pure cinema approach to exposition. The experience of loving, raising, and losing a teenager, all from the perspective of a single mother, is sketched so clearly and deeply in the opening, voiceover-laden passages, that the hard genre territory is all the more surprising and satisfying when it comes.

Villeneuve, whose muscular, melancholy thrillers are often drenched in a terse gloom, imbues the movie with a sleek but self-effacing style that lets his performers—be they capable and famous like Forrest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner, or solid character actors Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) and Tzi Ma (The Quiet American)—have plenty of room to build characters in a fashion that shouldn't feel old but oddly does. This is a sci-fi film built on people as much as spectacle, especially the alabaster-hued face of Amy Adams, who carries nearly every frame.

Adams's Dr. Louise Banks, the mother of the deceased, is a vaunted linguist who is teaching a sparsely attended college course when the 12 strange aircraft, towering, half-peanut-shaped affairs that emit no noise and seem to transmit not signals to each other whatsoever, appear all across the globe, including one over a stretch of rural Montana. In short order, she is hauled in by a laconic military honcho (Whitaker) to figure out how to communicate with the visitors. She is joined by Renner's world-renowned physicist (and eventual love interest) in an attempt to grasp the situation.

Human nature being what it is, various governments and not a small number of right-wing media loons think we should attack. The world is working together, figures from various countries sharing intel—until they aren't. The aliens, giant seven-legged "heptapods," who speak by extending their sinewy tentacles and drawing symbols in what looks like free-floating ash, don't necessarily mean harm. But translating the soundless language becomes a matter of international debate. After one of their messages is interpreted by a Chinese team as a threat, a mysterious Chinese general, played by Ma, seeks to attack the aliens, causing dissension at the UN and international chaos. The coalition that has been spearheading humanities effort to figure out what is going on falls apart. Banks comes to believe the aliens she and the physicist have dubbed "Abbott and Costello" are benevolent, but she has to figure out how to convince her nervous government, whose pensiveness and trigger-happy fatalism is represented by Stuhlbarg's shadowy CIA operative.

The film played to raves at both the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals before arriving for a victory lap in Villeneuve's native Canada. Villeneuve, however, wasn't on hand for its unveiling at the Toronto International Film Festival. Instead, he was off directing the new Blade Runner movie under Ridley Scott's supervision. If his newest film is any indication, Dekker and the replicants have, in their return to the screen after three decades away, found just the right steward.

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Arrival will be released in theaters nationwide on November 11.