There is a fine yet tangible line between great films and true, test-of-time masterpieces, and "Arrival" crosses this threshold very early on and somehow gets even better from there. Transcending genre classification even as it stands as one of the finest cinematic achievements in modern science-fiction storytelling, director Denis Villeneuve's (2015's "Sicario
") latest stunner threatens, at times, to become too overwhelming. Striking but unforced, rousingly operatic in its achingly resplendent grandeur and intimacy, this is a picture to savor, to be humbled by, to fall in love with, and to be in absolute awe over. It is a miraculous study in the precious fluidity of time and memory, of love and hindsight, and not trading any of it for the world. It's also an extraordinary tale not merely about aliens, but about the distinctly alien, and what ultimately bonds rather than separates the living creatures of the universe. In adapting Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life," scribe Eric Heisserer (2016's "Lights Out
") balances upon a proverbial tightrope and never steps wrong. "Arrival" is one for the ages.
Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is wandering through her days in a dutiful haze, the joy of living having seemingly been drained from her present following the untimely loss of 12-year-old daughter Hannah. Serving to shake her out of her stasis is a frightening worldwide event: the synchronous appearance of twelve unidentified flying objects across the globe. As military leaders and government officials struggle over how to handle this potential crisis, U.S.-based Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) seeks Louise's expertise in languages in an attempt to communicate with the alien beings. Time is naturally of the essence, and before Louise has a chance to fully grasp the enormity of what she is agreeing to, she and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) find themselves en route to the location of one such craft hovering over a field in rural Montana.
With the possible exception of 1997's Robert Zemeckis-helmed "Contact," has there ever been another movie so authentic to what it might truly be like if our planet made contact with an extraterrestrial race? "Arrival" is glorious fiction treated with the momentous, quaking realism of truth. Those expecting "Independence Day"-style destruction and shots of the White House blowing up needn't bother; director Denis Villeneuve is interested in a more searching philosophical exploration, one that provocatively delves into the governmental inner workings and raw human reactions were such a happening to take place.
From the initial sobering media reports and eerily thunderstruck, 9/11-reminiscent reactions of regular citizens, from escalating fears of the unknown to the threat of a breakdown between the world's nations, the film portentously grabs hold like a seductive spell. Taking its time to breathe yet enticingly moving forward, it observes its characters and the hair-raising situation at hand with a quiet urgency and panged empathy. The sense of discovery for the viewer, echoing that of Louise and Ian, is revelatory in its expert complexity, challenging one to consider a fresh state of mind and an alternate mode of thinking and communicating entirely foreign to our own yet, ultimately, logically reciprocal. Running parallel to this is Louise's own personal journey toward a revelation that will inform the choices she makes and the person she becomes. When it all comes down to it, love supersedes everything elsea notion which reverberates as the film reaches its sublime conclusion.
Delivering one of the best performances of the year, Amy Adams (2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
") is incredible as Dr. Louise Banks, on screen in every scene and instantly inviting viewers to live through herto vicariously feel her pain, her disbelief, her astonishment, her determination, her newfound sense of purpose, and ultimately her cathartic embrace of everything life is about to have in store for her. Adams has always had the gift of being wholly believable no matter the role, and she excels again her, spelunking the emotional depths of a woman who gets the singular chance to connect with visitors from another planet. As appointed colleague Ian Donnelly, Jeremy Renner (2016's "Captain America: Civil War
") lends affecting support, his unique bond with Louise growing organically throughout.
As he did with 2009's underseen university shooting tone poem "Polytechnique," 2013's thoughtful kidnapping thriller "Prisoners
," 2014's chilling, thematically loaded brain-twister "Enemy
," and 2015's starkly unforgettable "Sicario
," Denis Villeneuve orchestrates a wondrous sustained tension. Never feeling the need to tip his hat or fall into the trap of needless exposition, the filmmakerbar none, one of the most gifted working in the twenty-first centurytrusts the intelligence of his audience while remaining in full command of his groundbreaking visions and ideas. This artful craft extends to every technical category. The music score, composed by Villeneuve semi-regular Jóhann Jóhannsson, unnervingly emulates the cacophonous majesty percolating beneath the surface. Patrice Vermette's excellent production design is slick bordering on austere, while visual effects are faultless through and through. The aliens themselves are vividly and imaginatively actualized, unlike any other past screen representations. Cinematographer Bradford Young (2013's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints
") captures each frame as if it was his last, dripping with inquisitive scope and a wise understanding that the expressiveness of faces can be every bit as breathtaking as an imposing vista.
Exquisitely structured in surprising ways which only gradually reveal themselves, "Arrival" proves thoroughly mesmerizing. Conventional action is kept to a minimum, yet 2016 has scarcely seen such an exciting film. A plethora of subjectsruminations on our existence, on our drive for connection, on the sacrifices we make, on our yearning to love and be loved no matter the stakesensure there is always just as much to think about as there is to be dazzled by. Furthermore, it earns every one of its tough emotional beats, the sheer beauty and reverence within frequently enough to catch in one's throat and bring a tear to the eye. At the film's center is Louise, tasked with learning who these interplanetary beings are and why they're here, and instead finding a common ground and unspoken unity that goes far beyond language. "Arrival" is a hauntingly brilliant tour de force.