Skillfully plotted and spectacularly executed, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival sidesteps the empty bluster of much of today's explosion-driven sci-fi and instead provides intelligent, highly emotional genre entertainment that scratches an itch we didn't even know we had. It's full of discovery, wonder, and suspense, has a potent and impressive score, and contains a stellar performance from Amy Adams. In short, it's a total stunner of a movie in the best possible way.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with deciphering the language of a mysterious alien species that lands on Earth in twelve bean-shaped ships which hover over seemingly random areas of the world. She's teamed with an affable scientist (Jeremy Renner) and they make contact with the aliens multiple times, slowly piecing together their language through symbols and attempting to uncover their reason for coming to our planet. The arrival has thrown Earth into upheaval, so assessing the aliens' intentions as quickly as possible is of the utmost importance; the team is continually reminded of this fact by the Army's Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and the CIA's Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), who run the operation but take their orders from other government bureaucrats. With a volatile Chinese general threatening to blast the ships out of the sky, Louise and Ian find themselves in a race against time to find out the truth.
After a gut-punch of an opening, Eric Heisserer's script (based on Ted Chiang's short story) immediately throws us into the action so we're reeling from the start, and Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create a world that feels tactile and real, making it easy to believe that this is how our actual world would conceivably react if this situation were to really occur. Villeneuve is similar to James Cameron in that he's very much interested in process. There's a prolonged sequence of the characters going up into the alien ship for the first time that showcases the change in gravity they undergo; he gets the basic point across almost immediately, but while other filmmakers might have flown through this section quickly, the director relishes the opportunity to watch each character experience the change for themselves. Crucially, though, Villeneuve never gets so hung up on the procedures that the humanity is lost — most of the movie is revolves around problem solving, but there's an intensely personal aspect to it as well, as seen through Adams' character.
Louise develops a deeper, almost psychic connection with the aliens, and while I won't risk spoiling anything, let's just say that while larger stakes are present the whole time (the fate of the planet), the movie becomes much more intimate and grounded through her revelations. Adams is incredible, imbuing Louise with determined professionalism but also allowing the character to feel some genuine astonishment in her situation. Renner is passable as Donnelly, and he brings some nice warmth to the character, but this is Adams' movie through and through; it seems almost mean to say, but I feel like practically anyone could have played his part. And Whitaker and Stuhlbarg aren't asked to do much, but they round out the major players as a couple of grave, world-weary authority figures who've seen it all and are trying to handle this world-shattering event as efficiently as possible.
There is so much that happens in this film that I don't want to talk about because I just want you all to go see it and experience it for yourselves, but I have to take a second to give props to Heisserer's script. It's a critical aspect of why the film works so perfectly, and the emotional hit of the opening minutes is nothing compared to what you'll experience by the film's end. Aided by a tremendous score by Johann Johannsson, who worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario, the movie works like a beautiful puzzle, and when it finally clicks into place, it presents one of the most moving and poignant endings in years. Admirably ambitious and hugely satisfying, Arrival is one of 2016's very best films.