There are alien invasion movies, and then there is Denis Villeneuve's astonishingly good, thought-provoking, and ambitious Arrival. This is the thinking man's invasion movie, with compelling ideas on language, evolution, and time travel the only weapons used here, and human characters who are there for more than just piloting starships. It tackles themes we've seen explored in other films, Contact springs immediately to mind, and also Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, but Villeneuve taps into so many human concerns; grief, fear, loss, the need for communication, that it blows those other movies out of the water. Rest assured, this isn't Independence Day or The Martian; but Arrival fulfills on an entertainment level while feeding the mind and soul.
Amy Adams gives perhaps her most confident, affecting performance ever as Louise Banks, a linguist who is surprised to get a visit from the government on the same day twelve floating alien ships have descended on the world. The military commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) asks her to translate their first verbal contact with the aliens, later known as Heptapods, but she can't. There's simply nothing to relate from. If I sit and listen to someone speak Spanish I would eventually pick something up, but there's nothing for Louise to grapple on to. Their sounds are similar to those of whales, but Louise quickly figures that it means nothing to their written form of communication which resembles circular Rorschach tests. The first third of the film will be fascinating to those who take an interest in how living creatures with no linguistic connection can learn communicate. In this case, let's just say booting up Rosetta Stone isn't going to do the trick. Sound, time, and imagery all coalesce in ways that movies have never depicted on screen, much less tackled when it comes to language.
But there's a ticking clock aspect that Villeneuve, working off a tight screenplay by Eric Heisserer, lets loom over Louise's frequent interactions with the aliens. Working alongside physicist Ian Donnelly, they are to get the answer to one not-so-simple question: "What is your purpose here"? But the world isn't going to sit around and simply wait for an answer. As the U.S. contends with the one ship hovering over Montana, the rest of the world have their own visitors. The government stands on the precipice of war, while China and Russia are taking a decidedly aggressive stance. And of course there are elements stateside that are trumping up conspiracy theories and muddying up public opinion. These outside concerns only begin to intrude on the story in the middle, and it's no surprise that is where the film begins to drag. Not because things get boring or even slow, the gradual pace has tremendous benefits in the final act, but because it's the one aspect that feels like it was carted in from a less refined movie. From the moment we see Michael Stuhlbarg's scowling government bureaucrat we know he'll be calling in air strikes at an inopportune time or something.
Another problem with the warmongering background noise is that it takes us away from the movie's core strength, which is Louise herself. She has painful backstory, or at least one is alluded to in the beginning. In a montage as devastating as the opening of Pixar's Up, we see the birth, childhood, adulthood, and death of Louise's daughter. The implication is simple yet profound: she may be humanity's chosen one to represent all of us when making contact with these aliens, but she is a person with strengths, weaknesses, and pain. All of that comes into play on top of the incredible responsibility mounted on her shoulders. Shot with tremendous polish by acclaimed DP Bradford Young, he paints a stark contrast between Louise's surreal past and the cold, immediate present she finds herself in.
There are twists and turns but they don't come across as calculated steps, but the natural outgrowth of the film's slow burn, non-linear approach. This is one of the finest examples of how to use flashback and memory to a crescendo of revelation, and once it occurs it's like Arrival has come bursting forth from a cocoon. Admittedly, I initially felt like the big reveal was a bit of a narrative cheat designed to wrap things up neatly, but Villeneuve does not allow for anything so shallow. Arrival consistently and strenuously challenges the viewer at every turn. And now the challenge is on other filmmakers to try and live up to the example Arrival has set as one of the best modern pieces of sci-fi we've seen.
Rating: 4 out of 5