What will it be like when they arrive? It’s a question that’s been asked over and over again, from H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg. What sets “Arrival” apart is that this new sci-fi film starts where most of these first contact stories end: this is a film about engaging with an alien race from some other world in some rather in depth terms. In the process, we humans may learn more about ourselves and the very nature of reality. It’s rare that a movie really hits me on such a visceral level. Part of it has to do with its steady and realistic pace. 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” set the standard. In recent years, we’ve seen a trend towards more contemplative sci-fi. In this case, it’s what the movie has to say about how we perceive reality. The aliens have got a much different take on that.
Director Denis Villeneuve is known for pulse-pounding thrillers with a quirky sense of style (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy). For “Arrival,” the trick was to find the right balance of the theatrical with the compelling and cerebral quality of the original short story by Ted Chiang. I strongly encourage you to seek out Chiang’s story. You will find it to be quite moving with a different set of parameters at home on the printed page. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer succeeds in taking the beauty and nuance of Chiang’s work and finding something comparable in a Hollywood screenplay. Heisserer addresses every aspect of the original story. He amplifies the plot and adds action where it makes sense. Read my interview with Eric Heisserer right here.
Part of this story is about communicating and connecting. How do we do that? The answer lies somewhere in language. Amy Adams plays the role of an exceptional linguist, Dr. Louise Banks. She is assigned to crack the alien language. Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly) is assigned to crack the alien math. And Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber) is there to monitor. There are many others behind the scenes. In fact, there are twelve of these massive alien pods that have landed on various spots across Earth. But our attention is mostly on these three main characters, and our eyes are especially on Louise.
By the time that Louise has been enlisted, the alien site in Montana has been joined by an organized U.S. government contingent. And initial contact has been established: a crew enter a portal and make their way to a screen that separates them from a couple of Cthulhu-like creatures. While incredibly strange-looking, they also seem benign. Louise’s breakthrough is to authentically reach out to them. In time, these “heptapods” emerge from the language barrier to reveal a whole other way of looking at reality. Amy Adams delivers an exquisite performance as the one person who really gets it, in the same spirit as the Richard Dreyfuss character, Roy Neary, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“Arrival” is one of those special gifts from Hollywood that are still very much possible. This movie ranks right up with 2014’s “Interstellar,” starring Matthew McConaughey, as Cooper, in a somewhat similar struggle involving a parent and a child. Eric Heisserer says that his screenplay pitch went through 100 rejections from producers before it was green-lit. Well, his persistence most certainly paid off. This is definitely the perfect holiday movie, date movie, perfect all-around movie.
“Arrival” went into wide release as of November 11th. Visit the official site right here.