Arrival is the kind of science fiction film we dream of. It’s got big stars, a bigger concept, and the longer it goes, the more it demands of its audience. The pacing is methodical, the story captivating, and filmmaking beautiful. You rarely have a clue where it’s going—but once it gets there, you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story Of Your Life, Arrival stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, an international language expert who is called in to help translate the apparent language of a mysterious alien species who has peacefully landed 12 ships all over the globe. This has caused quite the international crisis, as you can imagine. She’s then joined by a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they engage the aliens to try to answer all the biggest questions: Why are you here? What do you want? Where do you come from?
As a filmgoer, you probably read that description and assumed the worst. The aliens are going to attack and it’s Independence Day or War of the Worlds. While I won’t reveal the aliens’ intentions, it’s not a spoiler to say Arrival does not play out like that. Through the thoughtful eye of director Denis Villeneuve, and with the brilliantly structured screenplay by Eric Heisserer, Arrival instantly distances itself from most alien invasion movies. The first scene of the film is a quiet moment where Banks, in voiceover, questions the validity and importance of some of life’s most treasured commodities. It feels superfluous at the start, but as the mystery behind the aliens comes into focus, it becomes exceedingly more important until, well, it’s just about the only thing that is.
Like the opening, there’s rarely a moment in the film that’s predictable. However, that also comes a little bit at the expense of the pacing. For lack of a better term, Arrival is a science fiction drama. The biggest actions scenes include Banks deconstructing the structure of a sentence and a single explosion. Everything about the plot and dispersal of information is so deliberate that despite it all adding to the whole and being interesting, there’s a chance even a seasoned viewer could check out. I urge you: don’t. Yes, it can feel slow, especially about halfway through, but trust me: the destination is not just worth the journey, it’ll make you want to take it all over again instantly.
Without spoiling that destination, it’s hard to dig too much deeper into why Arrival is such a great movie, but I’ll try. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson creates a unique balance of eerie and threatening, yet pleasing. Bradford Young’s cinematography makes everything feel ethereal, which draws the audience closer to the characters. And supporting turns by Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma give the subject matter additional resonance.
In the end, though, Arrival is really more about its ideas than anything else. Once those ideas seep into your brain, and you start filtering them through the beautifully edited film you just watched, the whole thing blossoms like a butterfly from a larva. The seemingly straightforward alien movie you were watching reveals itself to be a celebration of thought. A celebration of the power of cinema. A celebration of the special things in life. And something you instantly want to experience again, this time through enlightened eyes. When a movie can do something like that, it’s pretty special. Arrival is most definitely that.
Arrival screened at Fantastic Fest 2016 ahead of its wide release November 11.