After extraterrestrial life arrives at Earth for the first time, Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a renown linguist, must decipher the language of the aliens to figure why they came.
Denis Villeneuve is an intriguing figure in Hollywood. Two of his last films, “Prisoners” and “Sicario,”, were released as nationwide, mainstream films, and yet they’re so anti-that. They're marketed as either typical thrillers or crime dramas, but yet, they turn out to be so much deeper and often controversial than advertised. “Arrival” is no exception.
It’s important to know before going into this film that this is not somebody’s everyday sci-fi action film. This is a very slow, very hard science fiction film. Think along the lines of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Primer.” Spaceships don’t explode. There aren’t any laser beams. Nobody teleports. While this may turn off some, for others, it’s a breath of fresh air. While recent films like “The Martian” have leaned more toward the “science-y” side of science fiction, “Arrival” is no holds bar. It’s an intelligent film that presents complex themes that even the smartest viewers won't pick up in a single viewing.
Villeneuve, coupled with cinematographer Bradford Young, creates some of the most beautiful and impressive images of the year. From wide, long takes up in the sky to suffocating corridors, they create a mood that is unlike anything else this year. Appropriately, it feels very otherworldly. It’s almost like it’s disturbing, but not at all. The film isn’t that suspenseful, but it makes the audience's hearts pound, because they don’t know what’s going to happen next and because it has such an off putting, in a good way, mood.
The film succeeds in its special effects with how little it uses of them. Granted, the film uses a good deal of special effects, but it’s little in how simple the designs are, particularly the space ship. By making it a simple, half-pill shape without a whole lot of working parts and lights turning on and off and going back and forth all around, the simplicity helps the CGI appear more convincing. Again, without spoiling too much, the film makes the aliens themselves look convincing by keeping them is fog and smoke, so that, again, there isn’t a whole lot to animate. It may sound lazy on paper, but it makes the CGI and the film itself look all the more realistic.
Amy Adams is one of the finest actors working in Hollywood today, and that praise doesn’t stop there. She is excellent in this film. Her performance is so subtle, so raw, that it’s difficult to separate the character from the actor. She doesn’t put on a voice or cake her face in makeup or prosthetics. She doesn’t even dye her hair. It’s all in how delicate she is with her character, Louise’s, emotions. Her character is given a past, and without giving away anything, Adams is able to convey this past within her performance with every movement and facial expressions, making her character feel all the more real.
While both Renner and Whitaker give good performances as Ian Donnelly and Colonel Weber, respectively, the issue with them is that their characters aren’t very well developed. This becomes the only real major flaw in the film. Granted, this isn’t so much the fault of the actors, but more the writer, Eric Heisserer. Either way, unlike Adams’ Louise, the character's don’t have much purpose beyond being the comedic device (Renner) and a tough guy (Whitaker). Despite this, again, these two do give good performances, it’s just that their performances aren’t given much in the first place, which holds the film back, even if only slightly.
Denis Villeneuve adds yet another great movie to his already excellent filmography with “Arrival.” It’s a mainstream film that doesn’t feel mainstream in the slightest, thanks to its uncompromising intelligence and otherworldly tone. While simple, the special effects are almost as convincing as the fantastic performance from its lead actress. Check it out, this is not something to miss.