Is it language or science that holds true as the cornerstone of all cultures? They both determine our advancement as conscious beings within our society. We are unable to communicate if we cannot understand one another, although we are unable to advance if we cannot develop. Writer Eric Heisserer has adapted Ted Chiang's story titled "Story of Your Life" into the science-fiction drama Arrival, which tackles such ideas. This feature can best be described as a mature and thought-provoking genre offering that just might be the best film of the year. Given the current state of America after the elections, it's a piece of social commentary that's more relevant than ever.
The world is suddenly set in an uproar when twelve mysterious objects levitate directly above the land of various parts of Earth's surface. The military seeks the help of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is a linguist with the required level of clearance. She must work with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to discover the aliens' purpose, and whether they're friend or foe. Tensions run high, and it's up to the two of them to discover their intentions before it's too late.
One could debate for hours about Arrival, although many spoilers would be included. In order to ensure that this review remains spoiler-free, I will make sure to keep the film's many secrets and surprises hidden. The typical alien film generally bathes in bombs, gun battles, and total destruction; this one takes a completely different approach. The human characters actually matter, and the aliens aren't actually at the forefront of the plot. It's largely about what it means to be human, as well as the importance of communication in oral and visual forms. Louise proves to be a brilliant asset to the military, although she's clearly psychologically affected by the visits inside of the shell more each time she enters it. Strange dreams begin to haunt her, as she tries to unravel all of the information that has been collected. Arrival changes what we have come to expect from the science-fiction film, especially when aliens are concerned.
How would our society react to the knowledge that aliens exist, and have stationed their shells on our planet? Humans fear the unknown, especially when they could possibly threaten our existence. This is primarily explored through a variety of news clips throughout the film, and provides the plot with a greater sense of urgency. Riots break out in the streets and the people demand that the government should be handling this situation differently. This places a timer on Louise's tests to figure out the answers to the questions that she must ask. While this isn't necessarily at the center of the film, it adds another element to a story that already feels somehow relevant in our culture. If you're only getting an alien movie out of this, then you weren't paying close enough attention.
Arrival has a wonderful assortment of twists and turns that all work within the framework of the narrative. Perhaps the most beautiful element of the film is that most of our questions are left unanswered as the credits roll. Heisserer's screenplay doesn't seek to uncover the unknown, but to make us ponder those questions. However, it never feels like lazy writing, but rather a powerful way of holding a mirror up to the audience. This is smart science-fiction that makes the silliness of aliens feel serious and grounded. Yet, the feature also has a certain unnerving quality that constantly keeps us at the edge of our seats. This is an incredibly well-balanced piece of cinema that has a strong understanding of the genre and audience preconceptions, and successfully utilizes them to thrive.
Having not seen Amy Adams in much other than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice since Big Eyes, it's great to see her on the silver screen once again. She once again proves that she's one of the great powerhouse actresses in the industry that should never be underestimated. Adams is incredibly convincing as Dr. Louise Banks. This performance could easily make her an Oscar contender, as she manages to bring a true sense of discovery and honesty that feels true to her style of acting. Adams' ability to balance being knowledgable and curious about the unknown is truly stunning. Jeremy Renner delivers hints of comedic relief as Ian Donnelly. However, he does so in a way that feels a bit less intrusive than some of his other recent performances.
Director Denis Villeneuve is known for his work on Prisoners and Sicario, but Arrival delivers a much more simplistic look that is just as effective. There are only small uses of CGI that never take the film out of its grounded tone. The screenplay focuses on its human characters and the emotions that run through them, and the visual design follows suit. Johan Johannsson's score also thrives in its minimalistic nature, although it certainly becomes rather eerie in a way that enhances the narrative's sense of mystery. The editing is superb, as Villeneuve intercuts a non-linear narrative in ways that flow and make sense, which is quite remarkable.
There are few science-fiction films in the history of filmmaking that have an impact like Arrival. It handles the concept of aliens in a way that cinema rarely dares to, as it remains focused on the characters. Instead of big action set pieces, audiences are left with a thought-provoking film that reflects upon society and what it means to be human. Amy Adams will surely garner some much earned awards buzz, as she is greatly what keeps the character's narrative as grounded as it is. Villeneuve brings this screenplay to the silver screen in a way that stays true to the reserved nature of the its storytelling style. Arrival is remarkable filmmaking that excels in every step of its storytelling. DVD Talk Collector Series.