A few years back, a movie called Contact ticked me off when Jodie Foster supposedly traveled to some distant place in the universe only to have a chat with her dead dad. I just thought it was trite and a letdown in storytelling.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, one of the more subdued alien invasion movies you will ever see, also approaches the subjects of parentage and everlasting love. It’s also a much, much better movie.
That’s due in part to the simple fact that Villeneuve is quickly emerging as one of the best visual and pacing directors in the medium today. Arrival follows Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the vastly underrated Enemy (2013) as another movie of definitive vision, style and grace. No doubt about it, this man knows how to make a movie.
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics teacher crippled by visions of a daughter who died of a rare illness. She lives a life of seclusion, where the only thing she really does is teach her class and mope around her lakefront home. (Man, that must be one abnormally high paying teacher’s gig.) During class, a bunch of phones go off, a student instructs her to turn on the TV, and, bam, that’s how she discovers the planet seems to be getting a visit from an alien force.
Strange giant pods have parked themselves all over the planet, and nobody knows their intent. A solemn military man (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office and informs her the world needs her. She has a sense of purpose again.
It isn’t long before she’s inside an alien ship trying to talk to the “Heptapods,” large elephant looking aliens with seven legs. She’s joined by a science officer played by a surprisingly low-key Jeremy Renner.
The aliens communicate visually with symbols that look like coffee ring stains. They seemingly say a few words that get some part of the world a little worried, and it looks like Earth might find itself at war. It’s up to Louise to decipher the code-like language and find out if the Heptapods want to harvest us War of the Worlds style or give us a helping hand.
Adams could find herself in the Oscar race for this one. Hers is quite simply one of the year’s best performances thus far. (She’ll appear in another highly touted film, Nocturnal Animals, this month.) Louise doesn’t have many happy moments in this film, and while another actress could’ve rendered her somewhat of a drag, Adams makes her shine, even when she’s despairing. It’s some of her very best work.
Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is profound in a way similar to Interstellar. This is another example of science fiction taking a theme like universal love and making that aspect of the film just as interesting as the gadgets or alien creatures. The movie, while challenging your brain on a scientific level, definitely scores major emotional points.
The film was budgeted at just around $50 million, so it’s not a special effects extravaganza. The scenes with the aliens are engrossing, but there’s nothing whiz-bang about them. Dare I say, the movie is rather laid back. High props to cinematographer Bradford Young for shooting a movie that never seems anything short of very real. Those visuals are assisted by frequent Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson’s excellent score.
The movie is drawing comparisons to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a very different type of film from that one. If you are looking for some sort of action pic, you will not find that with Arrival. It’s a movie that gives itself time to breathe, and while it does have a few action scenes, for the most part, it’s intellectual fare.
Next up for Villeneuve is Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the Ridley Scott classic and another sci-fi effort. Based on his work with Arrival, I have to say that the Blade Runner sequel stands as one of my most anticipated movies.