Arrival is the deeply thoughtful, incredibly personal sci-fi movie I’ve been looking for

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The first of the year’s winter sci-fi offerings is Arrival, a first contact alien feature starring Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with opening communication with the new arrivals to Earth. It has some serious Oscar buzz, but to really get into this one I’ll need to throw up a spoiler warning right from the start.

For the most part, Arrival feels seamless. Johann Johannsson’s score perfectly captures the tension and oddities of this arrival, transporting listeners to another world and treating them to an atmospheric and complex range of sounds. At times I couldn’t tell if what I was hearing was part of the action, made by the newcomers, or from his score. It was impressive and captivating, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another Oscar nomination for this one (previously, Sicario and The Theory of Everything). The choice of an expansive field, frequently covered in rolling white clouds, for the ship’s arrival and military base was both beautiful and eerie. Most movies set the big invasion or arrival in a metropolis, so threats seem more pressing – but that wasn’t necessary here. It created a feeling of isolation and alienation from the rest of the world, and I loved that almost all the action was confined to this one location.

So much of this movie is reminiscent of Interstellar, but with vast changes to make it both more hopeful and farther reaching. It’s like what Christopher Nolan tried to do there, Denis Villeneuve actually brought to life here. It has an emotional, familiar story that felt very human. So many movies use the emotional backstory (or.. future, here, I guess) so there’s a reason to care for the main character and it often comes off as really unnecessary and extraneous to the plot. This time it needed to be there: not just to flesh out Adams’ character, but because it is the story.

It’s certainly slow-moving, focusing on really laying out and building everything you need for the final payoff, but it feels so good once you get there. The inversion of the classic flashback technique completely changed the film’s perception of time and created a much more interesting dynamic for Adams’ character progression.

 

As for the acting, I don’t have much negative stuff to say here. Amy Adams was fantastic, and is expected to get an Oscar nod for this one. She is far and away the star and entire focus of this movie. Her relationship with her daughter, with the aliens, with her job, just as herself… the entire movie is about her and her growth. Adams really lucked out on such an intricate, developed character, and she deftly portrayed the variety of emotions Louise experiences.

Jeremy Renner is the physicist here, but his skills aren’t as necessary as they were in the book. It never felt like we actually used his expertise, unless he was backing up Adams. He’s not superfluous, but he’s also not the driving force – and that felt like the perfect space for him in this one. Forest Whitaker put on a really jarring New England accent in this one, that occasionally took me out of the action and reminded me where I was. Otherwise, he was quite unobtrusive and did his job well. As the strict but understanding military officer that brought in Louise and Ian, he created an immediate connection without overshadowing anyone else.

It’ll certainly fit into my top five of the year, but with so much coming out soon I’ll have to see exactly where it fits in.

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