It’s best to experience Arrival, the latest from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, knowing as little as possible about it in advance. It’s such a nuanced and layered film with so many scenes that clearly work best without too many expectations about what is or isn’t going to happen. With that in mind, we’ll try to keep Arrival’s plot summary to a minimum.
Essentially, twelve immense unidentified cylindrical objects have placed themselves across the Earth in seemingly random locations, causing a global panic since no one knows why they’re there or what they want. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist assigned to work with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try to understand and communicate with the alien visitors, two of which they’re able to interact with inside of the unknown object hovering over the Montana plains.
Comparisons to Close Encounters of The Third Kind will be obvious and immediate as will H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still. In a sense, Arrival tries to create a similar examination of how today’s humans might react to an apparent alien invasion. In this case, the U.S. military surrounding the unknown craft in Montana wisely tries to communicate with the visitors before hitting the object with rockets, so Louise and Ian have to try to figure out a language that has no immediate correlation to any known human one.
Villeneuve continues to be a filmmaker who can work within any genre and make it his own, but in this case, he’s working from an incredibly strong screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story Of Your Life.” (The film’s title, “Arrival” is fairly generic, but it’s probably the easiest way to simply convey the theme of a film that’s not as accessible an alien invasion movie as, say, Independence Day.)
Villeneuve creates a new way to look at aliens and their craft in ways that defy physics and, at times, even human comprehension. He then throws two people into the deep end to try and make sense of it for us. The filmmakers are playing with much bigger ideas here than simply “aliens come to earth and we need to communicate with them,” because it’s a thorough exploration of how we learn language and syntax, and how different global powers are forced to work together to solve a problem that’s bigger than each individually.
Amy Adams has dominated the September movie festival season so far with her performance in this and in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. While that other film might be a more showy piece for Adams’ acting range, she still brings so much to Louise, who we’re first introduced to with a montage of her spending time with her daughter (these images recur throughout the film, leaving her fate deliberately unclear).
In a way, Arrival is one of the most daring studio science fiction films since it’s not trying to be easily accessible to mainstream movie audiences ala last year’s The Martian. Instead, it’s meant to connect with people on a number of different levels, some simple and others quite weighty.
Arrival is certainly not going to appeal to anyone expecting the amount of action that normally accompanies alien invasion movies, but rather those hoping for a more thought-provoking experience that will stick with them for a longer time. It’s a film that’s will reward further and repeated examination.
Arrival premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 12 and will be released nationwide on November 10.