Arrival Offers Cerebral and Emotional Sci-Fi Splendor

Arrival follows brilliant linguist Louise banks (Amy Adams), whose life takes a heartbreaking tragic turn. That personal hardship is quickly forgotten, however, when the earth stops to witness the arrival of alien life to our planet; twelve ships land at twelve seemingly random locations across the globe, and the result is a combination of scientific curiosity, military paranoia, and mass panic amongst the populace.

With the world hanging by the thread of her skill set, Louise pushes herself to translate what the strange alien beings are trying to tell humanity, before humanity tears itself apart in xenophobic fear. However, the more progress Louise makes, the more she realizes that communicating with these beings may come at a cost that's hard for the human mind bear. As the aliens' strange language begins to flood her mind with memories, she begins to wonder if she can endure the translation process long enough to save the planet.

Arrival is the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, the acclaimed director of films like Prisioners and Sicario, and it proves the filmmaker is as versatile with his talent as, say, Ang Lee. Whether it's mystery, crime drama, or (in this case) sci-fi, Villeneuve knows how to blend genre conventions with deep character drama in a truly "thrilling" way. Arrival is at once a mind-f*ck and an emotional punch - one that just so happens to keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time.

Amy Adams in Arrival Movie (2016)

Cinematically speaking, Villeneuve creates a minimalist feng shui canvas out of each shot, establishing scenes as framed images through which the characters move, invoking everything from famous artwork to classic sci-fi works like 2001 or Contact. Selma cinematographer Bradford Young makes the visuals pop with some breathtaking tones and hues, adding the extra punch that makes Arrival's visual splendor something that will stick in the mind long after the movie is over. The same goes for the sci-fi sequences that Villeneuve puts together, such as the the team's first venture into the alien ship, which is a sequence sci-fi fans will remember for years to come.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has cut his teeth on films that mix pulpy genre with psychological drama (Lights Out, The Thing). Heisserer's adaptation of Ted Chiang's narrative "Story of Your Life" is well paced and interwoven with subtle bits of character building and thematic narrative. The deeper bits of story are buried beneath the surface so intricately that when they finally converge in a third act twist, the surprise is well earned and heavily impactful, resonating across the events of the film. That's all to say: beyond being a well-built movie, Arrival is one heck of a good sci-fi parable on paper. That statement comes with the caveat that viewers understand the film is more cerebral sci-fi than sci-fi action; if slow-burn builds and subtle character drama are "too boring" for you, then Arrival won't be your cup of tea.

This is a movie where the performers are second to the film itself, but Amy Adams does such a subtle job of weaving in layers of interpretation and meaning to her performance that you may not even realize the level of performance she's giving (hint: masterful). Jeremy Renner is a bit more restrained playing Adams' partner on the translation project, Ian Donnelly, but offers some welcome levity and wit at key moments. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange) play the military commander and CIA spook (respectively) who are holding the ticking clock over Louise's head; both are big talents, and help anchor the story with tension and a driving pace forward, via their subdued intensity.

As for Arrival's talked about ending? It's one of the better twists in a long time, because it doesn't simply try to pull some arbitrary surprise out of its hat. The film it organically builds to its shattering conclusion, and the reveal is something that doesn't just titillate the audience, but rather feeds directly back into the story. The ending truly enriches the entire viewing experience, elevating a good sci-fi movie into something much more profound and powerful, that will punch many viewers in the emotional gut.

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All in all, Arrival is a rare sci-fi movie aimed at adults and presented in a very sophisticated cinematic way. It's definitely a movie experience worth having in the theater, but if you're looking for something action-packed and kinetic, then this meditative science mystery isn't for you. Check out Doctor Strange instead.

Arrival is now in theaters. It is 116 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.