Arrival (2016) (PG-13)

This review contains SPOILERS!
There's something familiar about the idea of aliens coming from the far corners of the universe to visit us. Maybe it's because we have an idea of our self-importance and place in the cosmos that makes Earth the central target for all these types of movies. And naturally, there are two possible outcomes for an extraterrestrial visit to earth: it is in peace and in the name of science, or it is in the name of war and conquest.
Hearing the setup for "Arrival" one would immediately assume that something like "Independence Day" would ensue. Twelve monolithic type ships descend from space and stop at various places across the globe. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in voice-over narration makes note of the occurrence as not something that she views as a beginning or ending or anything; but simply a monumental visit that changed everything.
We expect, in the first five minutes, to be thrown into a government meeting with military experts who will then tell us that violence appears to be the only answer; but this isn't what we get. Instead, "Arrival" side-steps every single major convention of the genre that we have some sort of Pavlovian reaction to. We see an alien ship, we start to salivate.
Instead, we get a sense of unease a dread from a civilian perspective, and in all truth, it's this that grants understanding that "Arrival" might be the very first movie to treat this subject with any sense of severity, emotional integrity, and intellectual gravitas.
Louise Banks, a linguistics expert, is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who plays her a sampling of an interaction with the beings in the ships. This recording is incomprehensible but Louise still asks to be taken to the ship itself because the interactions with the aliens might be more helpful to her. After denying this request, Weber is back with a scientist in tow, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). It's very clear that these are the two ways of approaching something like this: the scientist who wants to know the how and the linguist who has the ask the question.
"Arrival" is a movie that thrives on its script more than anything else. It's a precise work that is almost shockingly perfect. There is not a dull moment in the middle section of the movie and most of this should be credited to both Eric Heisserer and Denis Villeneuve whose previous work has made him into a critic's darling, and rightfully so.
A simple UFO visitation turns into a poetic contemplation on time, language, the meaning of communication, the media's fear of the unknown, memories, and being able to chose your own destiny. Though some of that is almost eye-rolling cliche at this point in cinematic history, "Arrival" manages to present the issues and themes in entirely new ways with such pacing and immersion that you might forget there is anything else besides this movie.
The ending strains for a climax that it ultimately cannot deliver quite as well as the set-up but what we're left with when the dust settles is an evenly paced, magnificently scored, eerie commentary on a host of issues.
There is no loss of the sense of irony that I must rely on words to convey how much I liked "Arrival". Most of the movie allows to realize that a bad translation without connotation or intent is like taking a sentence out of context and ending civilization with it. Every word matters.
And with that weight we are given two incredibly understated and wonderful performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Their chemistry is powerfully quiet and restrained.
"Arrival" is not just the best science fiction movie of the year, it's one of the best films of the year and it's one of the smartest science fiction movies in the last decade.

Score: ★★★★

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