Directed by Denis Villenueve.
2016. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
If you read my review of Almost Christmas, you know there was a deal struck between Mrs. Dell and myself. I would go see that movie with her and my daughters. In return, she would go see a film of my choice. The girls were spared. That film was Arrival. The two movies couldn't be more diametrically opposed, yet both start with montages of similar intentions. Both are clearly inspired by 2009's Up. It's no wonder. The opening montage of that animated gem is one of the finest examples of film making to ever grace a screen. This is inarguable, regardless of how you feel about the rest of the movie. In Almost Christmas our opening gives us a run through of our protagnist's entire marriage with his beloved wife, including her death, which sets the plot in motion. When Arrival starts, we're watching our hero, Louise (Adams), with her daughter Hannah through the entirety of the child's life. The girl dies as a teenager due to cancer.
When the smoke clears from that wreckage, we find out Louise is a world renowned linguist and college professor who has helped the U.S. government out of tight spots in the past. During class, all of her students are even more distracted than they otherwise would be with their smartphones, tablets, etc. It gets so bad, they just ask her to turn on the news. When she does, she finds out that just like in Independence Day, Signs, and any number of other sci-fi flicks, intergalactic visitors have not only arrived, but parked their rather sizable spaceships at various points around the globe. Sure enough, the government comes calling. It's clear the powers that be have seen those other movies, however, they realize the aliens haven't shown any aggression. Since that's the case, they want to talk to our "guests" and find out what they want. It becomes Louise's job to try to figure that out. Of course, she is only working on the ship parked over U.S. soil. Other linguists, employed by other governments are making similar efforts. As is usually the case with us Earthlings, they don't always play nice with each other.
In most films exploring the subject of beings from another planet showing up on ours, it quickly becomes apparent they're here for a hostile takeover. Humans are merely to exterminated or enslaved. Arrival dangles that carrot in front of the audience, but doesn't let on whether or not that's what is going on, for quite some time. This makes it a slow burn. However, it's never boring, it's building. And it does so masterfully. As it goes about its business laying its foundation, putting up its frame, and filling it in, we're absorbed by the process. We understand that the aliens have more on their mind than just making things go boom. The film itself is truly interested in figuring out why the aliens are here before deciding what to do about them. This gets us invested in what happens beyond the possible pyrotechnics.
Helping to keep us invested is Amy Adams in the lead role. From the moment we meet her, right through the final frames of Arrival. there is a palpable sadness about her. There is never a moment when we don't want to wrap her up in our most therapeutic hug. This makes her easy to root for. Her triumphs warm our heart and ease our fear because we've brought into the idea of the consequences of her being wrong. Adams facilitates those feelings with a masterful performance. It's arguably the best of her career. The rest of the cast provides perfect support for her. Both Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are wonderful. So, too, are Abbott and Costello. I'm not talking about the legendary comedy duo. I'm referring to the two aliens named after them. Louise interacts often with them and the development of their relationship is integral to the movie's success. That relationship, like the best ones are, is based on communication. However, in lieu of some verbal language for Louise to decipher, the aliens communicate using what could best be described as hieroglyphics. Even through that, Adams manages to convey a sense of wonder, curiosity, and growth as the film progresses. Add to this, the fact heroism doesn't come easy to her. In fact, nothing does. This gives her layers to peel and aspects to unearth. As a result, Louise is a woman we really get to know.
I could go on praising the work Amy Adams put in. She deserves all the praise she gets for this role. Still, she's not really the star of Arrival. That honor belongs to director Denis Villenueve. He creates an anxious tone filled with hopeful cynicism. By that, I mean the film, and everyone in it, hopes things work out for the best, they just don't think they will. Villenueve accomplishes this through some wonderfully patient storytelling. There are very few of what could be called action scenes, and he never rushes from one to the next. He has some interesting special fx at his disposal, but doesn't rely on them. He sticks to his aim of telling the story in the most compelling way possible. His ability to do that, here and in his past efforts, have quickly made him one of my faves. Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and now Arrival are all brilliant, in my opinion. These movies have me excited for his next directorial effort, the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. This is no small feat considering I'm one of those people who hates the original Blade Runner.
One of the tools at the director's disposal is flashbacks. Villenueve makes extensive use of them to hold our interest. They are all of time Louise got to spend with her daughter. The question on our minds as the film repeatedly returns to them is "How does this figure into what's going on with the aliens?" We know that it does. We just can't quite make the connection until the movie tells us. At that point, the implications of all that is going on envelopes and astounds us. Therefore, the numerous flashbacks might at first seem like an intrusion, but the payoff for them is immense. That payoff makes this one of the finest cinematic reveals I've ever witnessed. Jaw-dropping is a cliche I'm hesitant to use, but that's exactly what it is: a moment which force my mouth to drop open and sent my soul reeling. Regardless of how it may sound, I assure you I'm speaking without hyperbole. While the last few minutes of the film play out, we sit in awe at the decisions our heroine made and wonder would we be able to do the same. Her choices, what Arrival has to say about us as individual human beings, and what it has to say about the collective world we live in are all ripe for philosophical debate. That's precisely what Mrs. Dell and I had on the way home from the theater.