Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
1 hr. 56 min.
As long as humans have coalesced thought and curiosity, the questions have been there. The subject has been elucidated in writing for centuries. Are we alone? What’s out there in the void of space that exists as we do, and what will happen when they . . . pay us a call?
The speculation has made for enduring, imaginative, artistic work, from H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds to movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Independence Day and Contact. The list goes on. It would be both pejorative and incorrect to say that the newest entry into to this galaxy of science-fiction films, Arrival, is just another in a series of motion pictures about the invasion of Earth by beings hellbent on our destruction. It’s not. You’ll think you’ve seen it before, but you haven’t.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival deals with the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation through a deep, effective story that stimulates the gray matter. It also has marvelous special effects, first-rate casting, and an oh-so-subtle allegory that is more than appropriate today. As the old saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Amy Adams, as fine an actress as we’ve had in the last 10 years, soars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who comes to class one day to discuss the origins of Portuguese, only to discover a near-empty room. Students are glued to every conceivable device, following the breaking news: Spacecraft, looking for all the world like colossal gray French baguettes, are hovering over a dozen locations throughout the world, including Montana.
Colonel G.T. Weber (Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, in excellent form) shows up at her house to insist that she use her linguistic expertise to help communicate, somehow, with these aliens who seem less malevolent than what the real-life Stephen Hawking has projected.
In an American Hustle reunion of sorts, Jeremy Renner plays theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, who comes aboard to further study the E.T.utterings. Banks and Donnelly work together with the military and a CIA agent (the go-to annoying guy in so many movies, here played by Michael Stuhlbarg) to interpret these sounds, best described as akin to the noises heard in a near-empty men’s room. As they puzzle, intellectuals around the world do likewise, with mixed results.
Adams, as she has in many of her films (Enchanted, the aforementioned American Hustle, Trouble With the Curve to name a few), brings calm determination and humanity to her portrayal of Louise. Even aliens would fall in love with this sensitive, smart woman. In what is an intellectual role, in a thought-provoking, fascinating film, her charm and honest beauty are incidental to her bearing onscreen. Adams’ Louise is crackling bright, but carries pain.
Arrival’s script and visual textures are equally appealing. Bradford Young’s cinematography and special effects literally envelope you. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) has adapted the short story, which focused on the linguistic aspects, and with the help of scriptwriter Eric Heisserer, brought wonder and genuine thrills to what might have turned into an Independence Day: Resurgence-like, explosion-filled rehash.
If a criticism can be found, an honest one, it would be no more than a question: Why, in motion pictures, must alien life forms so frequently resemble calamari?
Regardless, this alien Arrival, with its depth, erudition and meaning, posits hope. Hope that possible life from other worlds will come in peace, and hope that the people who inhabit our own planet can, in dark times, work for the common good.
This is a beautifully made film in every way, unique for a major studio release. It captures the imagination, the heart and the intellect. I would, however, rethink squid as a post-movie dinner choice.