When we think of alien invasion movies, we’re more prone to think of something on the scale of Independence Day – aliens arrive and wreak havoc, while humans band together to try and stop them. Arrival is not that type of alien invasion film. It’s a far quieter, more thought-provoking film that demands patience from its audience as it tells its story. The rewards of the payoff, though, are among the most powerful to hit theaters this year.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist at the top of her field. She’s recruited by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to help with a translation issue that may even prove a challenge to her, though: aliens have arrived with ships floating above the Earth, and the Army wants her help with a ship that’s above Montana. Weber recruits Louise to try to interpret the aliens’ language so they can find out why the aliens are on Earth. On the trip to the ship, she meets her partner in the endeavor, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
With soldiers by their side, Louise and Ian enter the spacecraft through an opening in the base. Once inside, though, gravity releases them to walk up the vertical shaft, with one of the walls now serving as a floor. At the end of this shaft, they meet the aliens – two giant beings housed on the other side of a transparent barrier. Louise and Ian find their efforts at verbal communication fail, but make some promising headway with written language. The aliens release swirling circles of an ink-like gas from their hands, which Louise determines are fully formed sentences – ones without beginnings or ends. Learning to read the language takes time, but it does progress.
Louise and Ian have more trouble than just learning to interpret this new language, though. They’re constrained by both Weber and CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), who want to know more about the aliens’ intentions and to make sure the aliens don’t learn too much about mankind, in the event they’ve arrived to conquer. What’s more, the other 11 ships that have landed on Earth are over other countries, each trying to make their own breakthroughs with the spacecrafts, and tensions begin to run high that if another country discovers something first, it could turn into war. A sense of panic and dread quickly envelops the globe, with some calling for preemptive attacks on the aliens.
There’s more to Arrival, but to say more would spoil the film for viewers. Suffice it to say, Arrival has a twist, but it’s one that’s fundamental to the narrative being displayed, and it has an impact on the events that take place throughout the film. Arrival is the rare film that demands multiple viewings to comprehend the story being told, and it’s absolutely worth it.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who has only grown as a filmmaker with each project (from Prisoners to Sicario), truly shines here. There’s an intentional gradual build to the information here, with the pacing designed to let the material seep in. As grand as the material gets, though, it stays anchored to Earth thanks to Amy Adams’ ownership of the film, from beginning to end. She sells every frame of this film with her performance, and while it may get pushed aside come award season for flashier performances, it’s absolutely one of the best performances of the year.
Arrival is breathtaking in its sense of ambition and scope. It’s thought-provoking and timely, and while it requires some patience, the trip and destination this film takes its audience on are both well worth the investment of time. Arrival is, hands down, one of the best films of the year.