21 Laps Entertainment
1 hour, 55 mintes
Amy Adams, as Dr. Louise Banks, is flying in a helicopter when she gets her first glimpse of the alien craft that has positioned itself above the Montana countryside. Flying fairly high, she notices a large roadblock and crowds of thousands lining a barrier fence. Beyond it, still looking down she sees a makeshift army camp through the rolling morning mist. Flying up the through a valley, Dr. Banks scans the ground beneath her looking to see if she can see the craft, but suddenly she realizes that she needs to look up. The craft is massive. The scale of the ship, taller than the surrounding mountains, sneaking up on Dr. Banks is a good metaphor for how the impact of “Arrival” sneaks up on the audience. Emotional, thoughtful, and mind-boggling in its implications, “Arrival” is a truly great film.
At the beginning of the film, Dr. Banks is a professor on linguistics whose class is rudely interrupted by a world-wide phenomenon. Out of nowhere have appeared twelve giant spacecraft at a variety of locations around the world. The tall, ovoid shapes do not appear to be necessarily threatening, but neither are they forthcoming with any information about themselves at all. The army sets up a perimeter and attempts to study the visitors, but to no avail. Days go by with no word from the government, when all of a sudden Forrest Whitaker’s Col. Weber shows up at Dr. Banks’ office door asking for help. As one of the world’s most renowned linguists, it is hoped that Louise can help create a line of communication with the ship’s inhabitants so that we might find out what their intentions are. It is discovered that once every eighteen hours, a hatch of sorts opens up and allows the humans access to the interior of the ship. Weber and his team have been inside, but now they need people with new skill sets. In addition to Louise, Weber has recruited Dr. Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist to help interpret the answers to the army’s questions, should any answers be forthcoming. The two of them, along with a camera crew and support team, ascend into the belly of the beast, as it were, and what they find there is nothing short of amazing. But can they make themselves understood, to both the aliens and the army, in time to avoid a full-on military meltdown?
There is so much to love about “Arrival,” but unfortunately, to talk too deeply about it is to spoil it. This is not a movie with a bunch of jump scares and gotcha surprises, nor is playing with the kind of plot twists so loved by the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, though the story does have a doozy of a surprise in the third act. But what I really don’t want to spoil is the creeping sense of awareness that comes over you as you work alongside Louise and Ian to solve a seemingly impossible puzzle. I also don’t want to spoil the aliens themselves, though I will say I was very satisfied by how seriously director Dennis Villeneuve, and before him, author Ted Chiang, upon who’s short story this film was based, takes the idea of creatures from another planet. Humans have such a limited scope from which to draw conclusions, and aliens in the movies are always vaguely like us in some way or another. It was nice to have creatures that were truly strange for a change.
That idea of the difficulty in understanding beings so different from ourselves carries through to the wider plot in the film, and to our larger world, as well. Communication is such a vital tool, and when it breaks down, when context is set aside, when another’s point of view is not respected, ruin is inevitable. But “Arrival” is not about that. It’s about the opposite of that. It’s about people working together, about the benefit of trust and tolerance, and about the value of being able to perceive things in a brand new way. It is telling that there are no villains in “Arrival.” Yes, there is conflict and plenty of it. Tension runs high throughout the film, and there’s even a little action. But ultimately, “Arrival” speaks of hope, from its highest highs to its heartbreaking lows. Jeremy Renner, as Ian, is very good. He’s a good workhorse everyman who doesn’t have a lot of showy acting to do, but is nevertheless captivating. Whitaker is similarly good as the Colonel, but this is really Amy Adams’ show. Who else but Amy Adams could turn a performance about a linguist into something so stellar? As a woman whose life has been tinged by tragedy, Adams gives Louise a weariness that stays below the surface of everything she does. As her work with the aliens begins to change her, Adams shows that in subtle, quiet ways.
“Arrival” is already generating Oscar buzz, and I hope it continues. I loved this film. I saw it in Anchorage, but I’m glad to say it will by coming to the Peninsula on November 23rd. You’ll have to check your local listings for showtimes, but I highly recommend seeing this in the theaters. Though in some ways a small, intimate film, there are visuals that should only be experienced on the big screen. With “Arrival,” I finally feel like the big holiday movie season has finally arrived. Not a minute too soon.
“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief language and brief violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.