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Amy Adams is absolutely riveting in Arrival, a fascinating and challenging movie dealing with far more than first contact with an alien species, it deals with questions of perception, memory and what it means to be human. Adams is transfixing and it is her performance that carries the film and could likewise carry her to another Academy Award nomination. One could see it for her performance alone and come away thinking “that’s a couple hours well spent.”
Controlled and restrained, the talented actor exudes depth and pathos as Louisa Banks, a brilliant linguist pressed into service when the Earth is visited by twelve shell-like spacecraft, the occupants of which inconveniently don’t speak a language anyone on the planet can recognize. Brought into the unavoidable military mission by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber (Whitaker is also good, though his role is far less demanding than Adams’), Banks races against something of a doomsday clock to establish communication with the aliens in order to answer the question at the center of all alien contact movies: why are you here?
The entire opening plays out like something Michael Crichton might have devised and I love much of what Michael Crichton devised.
12 alien shell ships have come down at 12 different locations and diverse teams of military forces and scientists in each location are attempting to unlock the secrets of the crafts and their occupants. Coordinating their efforts proves difficult, however, when individual governmental concerns and local fears begin to come into play.
That’s the set up. Where screenwriters Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang and director Dennis Villeneuve take the story from there is the payoff. Along the way, the audience sees different scenes from Banks’ life which we increasingly come to understand have far more to do with the events playing out with the first contact mission than we might initially imagined. We also meet Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnely, a scientist paired with Banks who will consider the scientific implications of all that is being learned from the alien species.
That the film boasts actors of Adams’, Renner’s and Whitaker’s pedigree speaks to its quality. The cast takes the proceedings most seriously, and the film does, too. It does not stop to explain much to the audience, either, and does not let itself get bogged down in exposition. It expects its audience to be on its toes and succeeds in engrossing the audience, demanding the kind of intellectual engagement that is rarely asked of film goers these days. You have to be paying attention – close attention – to sort out the events of Arrival as they unfold in the life of Louisa and, even if you are paying close attention, the ending of the film will likely surprise and challenge you.
Arrival is an excellent movie, perhaps Best Picture excellent, and rivets the attention of the audience without resorting to needless action or contrived conflict.
Arrival is a not only a most powerful piece of well considered and conceived science fiction, it does something that good science fiction is able to do: it asks us to perceive ourselves in a different light. It asks us to consider ourselves in a new way. The breathtaking conclusion of the movie (which plays out without any action movie trope) leaves us asking questions about communication, memory and what connects all humanity.
That’s a pretty amazing thing for a movie to do.
ARRIVAL receives FIVE HEPTAPODS out of a possible FIVE.