‘Arrival’ delivers fresh, emotional take on classic sci-fi topic

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/5/17 12:00am

Who would have thought that the most impressive science fiction film of 2016 would not be “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” but instead Denis Villeneuve’s thought-provoking, psychological and deeply moving “Arrival.” Villeneuve has already proven himself to be an extremely talented director with films like “Incendies” and “Sicario.” Despite this, I was skeptical when early reviews called “Arrival” a new sci-fi masterpiece. Good films have a tendency to buckle under the weight of tremendous hype, and I was nervous that Villeneuve simply wouldn’t be able to live up to the mammoth expectations being set by the film’s early admirers. Yet somehow “Arrival” surprised me, finding a way not to meet my expectations but instead surpass them and engage me on both an intellectual and emotional level.

At its heart, “Arrival” is a work of speculative fiction that wonders what first contact with an alien species might realistically look like. When 12 egg-shaped spaceships begin to hover above various locations across the world, governments scramble to contact the aliens and determine their intentions. To this end the U.S. military recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, to communicate with the extraterrestrials. The rest of the film chronicles Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to learn the aliens’ language and enable a conversation.

Before I even saw the film, I knew that I would be impressed by Villeneuve’s technical prowess as a director. “Arrival” confirms what I had already suspected while watching “Sicario”: Villeneuve is one of the finest cinematic craftsmen working today. His films are beautifully directed without ever being showy or pretentious because his focus is always on the story. But I also admire his ability to infuse his films with a potent atmosphere that almost serves as an unseen character. In “Sicario” you can almost touch the sense of dread the film creates, and much the same can be said for the feeling of awe in “Arrival.” When we as a species finally do encounter an alien race, I suspect we will all be overcome with the mix of terror and wonder that this film depicts so well.

What surprised me most, however, was the genuine connection I felt with the characters. “Arrival” has been billed as a film with a fairly lofty concept, and, indeed, the majority of its run-time is spent on the world’s most high-stakes linguistics lesson, the ending of which aims to make you think long and hard while at the same time blowing your mind. Films with such intellectual ambitions can sometimes lose character depth and warmth amidst the plot and ideas. “Interstellar” is a great example of a film filled with truly compelling and thought-provoking ideas that fails to achieve its full potential because it never finds a way to connect with the characters, try as the actors might. Thankfully, this is not the case with “Arrival.” All of the performances are universally excellent, but the highlight really is the relationship between Adams and Renner. Their developing friendship and the innate way in which they care for each other is the element that grounds this story. Moreover, it is beautifully mirrored by the relationship shared by the two aliens with whom they communicate, whom they lovingly nickname “Abbott” and “Costello.”

The movie’s only flaw is that its ending might come across as a little jarring for some. Frankly, I love it and I think it makes the film, but I imagine that some audience members will be a little taken aback when watching it for the first time. After a second or third viewing, however, I expect the ending won’t feel quite so much like it comes out of left field. I also suspect that on repeat viewings I’ll come to appreciate the film’s message about communication and compassion even more. I love a good alien invasion film, but there’s something surprisingly uplifting about a movie that suggests that perhaps aliens might visit us for entirely peaceful purposes. And starting Jan. 20, our new administration might need to be reminded that not everything foreign or alien is necessarily a threat — in fact, far from it.

When the Golden Globe nominations were announced, I was saddened to see that “Arrival” had not received a nod for Best Motion Picture — Drama. I just hope the Academy Awards don’t make the same mistake. Like I mentioned, “Arrival” is the sort of film which only grows deeper in meaning the more times you watch it. But watching it just once was enough to convince me that it was something special. On Oct. 6, 2017, Denis Villeneuve’s next film, a sequel to “Blade Runner,” will be released in theaters. “Blade Runner” happens to be my favorite film of all time, so this makes me inherently nervous. However, based on “Arrival,” I have a great deal of confidence in Villeneuve’s ability to surprise and impress me. Good luck, sir! You’ve earned it.

Rating: 9/10

Top 5 Films of 2016

A quick caveat: There are a number of films that I didn’t see this year which may or may not have made my list. Of the films I did see, though, these are the five that reminded me most why cinema is my passion.

1. “La La Land”

2. “The Nice Guys”

3. “Arrival”

4. “Sing Street”

5.“Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Southside with You” (TIE)