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Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and written by Eric Heisserer, is an excellent science-fiction drama that offers a cerebral, grounded take on the idea of first contact.
Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US military to assist in the translation of alien communication when mysterious unidentified spacecraft appear in random spots all over the world. With the aliens’ objective on Earth a mystery, it’s up to her and scientist and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Runner) to figure it out before it’s too late – many of the world’s superpowers are considering the presence of the aliens a threat and are willing to go to war.
Villeneuve is exceptional at meticulously building suspense and Arrival sees him in fine form. The movie takes its time to introduce us to the aliens and a lot of its early moments show people’s reactions – confusion, fear, awe. Empty streets and buildings and 24/7 news coverage. Once Dr. Banks arrives at the military base near the landing site, she undergoes rigorous testing and procedures before being allowed access to the alien vessel. Other movies might have glossed over bits like these or omitted them entirely, but Arrival walks you through every step of the process.
This grounded approach makes the aliens feel all the more extraordinary. Science fiction has given us far more creative and outlandish ideas of alien life out there, but Arrival builds up to its extraterrestrial reveal so effectively that they leave a lasting impression. The minimalist design of the aliens and their technology fits the movie’s realistic tone and cerebral pace and can make something as simple as a rotated camera perspective feel surprisingly otherworldly. A lot of credit should also go to Jóhann Jóhannsson for the music, which sustains tension throughout and amplifies that otherworldly feel tenfold.
Amy Adams gives a terrific performance, capturing the immense pressure her character is put under along with the sense of wonder, anxiety and discovery that comes from meeting aliens for the very first time. Much of the movie focuses on her character, leaving little to do for seasoned actors like Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker – they certainly pull their weight with their respective supporting roles, but to some degree it feels like a bit of a waste.
The plot builds to a well thought-out and intriguing twist that isn’t particularly groundbreaking or surprising, but is executed in a way that doesn’t make or break the movie like the massively overrated Interstellar. Those well-versed in science fiction will probably piece things together quite quickly, while others may be in for a bit of a shock, but either way, it works as a satisfying conclusion to the story.
As an exercise in smart, grounded sci-fi, Arrival excels, masterfully building and sustaining suspense, a script that is just as emotionally complex as it is cerebral and a great cast to boot. If anyone still has doubts about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, which Villeneuve will direct, Arrival should more than dissuade them.