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‘Arrival’ review

See 'Arrival' for the alien-invasion, but leave with much, much more

Sometimes a movie comes out of nowhere and turns out to be so unlike anything you expected that you’re left wondering whether the experience was something uniquely brilliant or an elaborate bit of bait-and-switch cinema.

That’s the sort of film that director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama Arrival proves to be, and whether it falls into the former category or the latter will likely depend on what audiences come into the theater expecting from it – and how rigidly they hold to those expectations. One thing is certain, however: Arrival is a movie unlike anything else we’ve been given in recent years.

Directed by the Sicario and Prisoners filmmaker from a script penned by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, The Thing), Arrival is based on based on the award-winning 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. The film casts Amy Adams as prominent linguistics professor Louise Banks, who is called upon to find a way to communicate with the aliens inhabiting a group of strange spaceships that suddenly appeared in the sky at various points around Earth. She’s joined by a theoretical physics expert played by Jeremy Renner, and a senior military official played by Forest Whitaker, who supervises their interaction with the extraterrestrial visitors.

The initial previews for Arrival hinted that it was more than just your standard alien-invasion movie, but exactly how far it strays from that genre while still remaining firmly entrenched in its fantastic, sci-fi premise is one of many impressive feats the film pulls off.

Simultaneously exploring the philosophical quandaries of predestination, the complexities of linguistics, and the nature of time itself, Arrival layers some pretty deep subject matter over its basic genre foundation. And yet, the film does a surprisingly good job of conveying complicated concepts that blend into the narrative and rarely – if ever – feel forced.

Arrival is a movie unlike anything else we’ve been given in recent years.

For example, how Adams’ character approaches the task of establishing communication with lifeforms that don’t relay information the way humans do is handled in a way that’s both intelligently presented and fascinating to watch unfold on the screen.

Villeneuve has proven himself as a master of tone – both visually and through the use of music cues – and his talents are on full display in Arrival. The human characters’ first interaction with the aliens is a wonderfully crafted, slow-burn sequence that plays with classic movie tropes (and pays subtle homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey) while introducing some entirely unexpected elements that make the well-worn “revealing the alien creature concealed in smoke behind the glass” scene feel fresh and surprising. Subsequent scenes featuring the aliens are handled just as well, with Villeneuve keeping the level of uncertainty about the creatures just as high as the tension, and making sure not to spoil them by giving too much away or maintain so much secrecy that the audience feels cheated.

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It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work, but Villeneuve also offers up some compelling moments with the human cast without any aliens, too.

The film has a relatively small cast of human characters – and an even smaller number of characters who actually spend any significant time on the screen – but Villeneuve certainly doesn’t waste any of the time or characters he’s given. The dialogue is efficient when it needs to be, conveying complicated concepts with surprising ease and not spending a second more than it needs to on developing certain relationships (adversarial or otherwise). This allows him to slow down and linger on the more emotional, dramatic moments that benefit from that extra attention the camera pays them.

Arrival earns the intense emotional response it asks from its audience.

In the film’s featured role, Adams does a remarkable job of adding depth to her character, and seems to find ways to make her linguistics expert feel like more than the typical academic. Her reaction to the aliens feels authentic to her character, and this – along with excellent performances from the supporting cast – contributes to Arrival feeling like a sci-fi movie that achieves far beyond the genre standard.

At a time when so many films that fall under the “science-fiction” banner forego the science for spectacle-driven fiction, Arrival offers the best of both worlds with a thought-provoking story that still manages to provide memorable, breathtaking visual moments. It also taps into the sort of emotions – and depths of emotion – that aren’t usually mined in sci-fi fare, and does so in a way that earns the intense emotional response it asks from its audience.

Easily one of the best sci-fi films of the year and certainly one of the most unique, Arrival is a reminder that the science-fiction genre is truly a wide-open field that can offer a little something for everyone and move you in powerful ways that remind you what it means to be human.