Last year, acclaimed French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve came out with “Sicario,” one of my favorite films of 2015 and a brilliant exercise in suspense and thrills. Villeneuve has a roster full of brilliant films, from “Incendies” to “Prisoners.” This year, nothing is stopping “Arrival,” Villeneuve’s first foray into science-fiction, and it was one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year. Rightfully so, as yet again Villeneuve demonstrates his capability of taking on a genre he is not familiar with, but excelling in it regardless.
“Arrival” centers on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) an adept and capable linguist who is recovering from personal tragedies just as 12 massive extraterrestrial spaceships appear above seemingly random locations, including Montana. All major governments and militaries of these 12 locations respond quickly, with Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) tasking Banks with deciphering and translating the aliens’—the Heptapods’—language after first contact. Banks readily agrees and is aided by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). They do their best to understand the language in order to ask humanity’s most pressing question: Why are the aliens here, and do they come in peace?
This is the thinking man’s alien contact film, the antithesis to films such as “Independence Day.” The science presented within the film seems concrete and plausible, and the interwoven fantastical elements appear organic. Those elements, much like everything else in the film, is subdued—in a great way. The direction by Villeneuve is impeccable, and his collaboration with rising cinematographer Bradford Young is shown so beautifully in every shot, every action and the slowly unraveling plot. These elements complement the screenplay by Eric Heisserer, which is able to juggle the plot elements—the translations, information and explanations—effectively, while also giving the film room to have emotional depth.
The acting is great, although it is unfortunate that Whitaker and Renner, while great in their roles, seem to be playing bit parts due to the strength of Adams’ performance. This beautifully understated performance is one of my favorites of the year, as Adams plays the part with much compassion as her character forms a close bond with the Heptapod aliens despite the world’s fear of their capabilities.
The film moves along at a deliberate pace, taking its time with the translations and heightening tension, as various nations attempt to decipher the intentions of the Heptapods. This may be a deal breaker for some people expecting a bombastic—or at least quick—science fiction action film of sorts, due to some marketing that made it seem fast-paced. “Arrival” is not like that, and you will need patience while waiting for the climax. If you can brave your own impatience, you will be awarded with the most satisfying conclusion in film this year. The various reveals regarding the Heptapods and Adams’ growing connection with them leads to some grand emotional moments. Mouths were open, jaws were on the floor and everyone walked out of what possibly was the best film of 2016 in awed silence.
This is Villeneuve’s most hopeful film, and with a mesmerizing and beautiful score from Villeneuve’s usual composer, Johann Johannsson, the audience can feel the magic being created on screen. You will want to see this film again and again, to learn more and to see what you missed before, but also to experience the film and to escape to this world. That is what the best films in cinema are capable of giving you. “Arrival” is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Release Date: Nov. 11
Rating: 5 out of 5