Adaptation Arrival

'Arrival' Film Review: Close encounters of the cerebral kind

November 11, 2016Ben MK

If or when aliens make first contact, how will the situation unfold? Will it be a battle for the fate of humanity, as in Independence Day? Or will it be something more peaceful, à la E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Knowing Donald Trump, he'd probably build a dome around the Earth and fire nukes at our interplanetary visitors. Thankfully, Arrival was not directed by America's new President-elect.

Based on author Ted Chiang's Nebula Award-winning novella, "Story of Your Life," the film follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor at the center of our planet's first encounter with extraterrestrial life. Twelve identical alien craft have suddenly appeared in various spots around the globe; and after a U.S. Army Colonel named Weber (Forest Whitaker) pays her a visit at her office, Louise finds herself on the next military plane to one such location — Montana — where she's to help decipher the aliens' language and deduce their purpose on Earth.

The task seems more than daunting at first, especially since the aliens' ships — each one a silent monolith hovering ominously over the landscape — seem so... well... alien. Every 18 hours, though, a doorway opens up, allowing Louise, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team of military personnel entry within. Over time, however, their mission becomes a race against the clock. And as other nations begin to perceive the aliens' presence as a threat against humanity, it's up to Louise to prove them wrong — before mankind makes a decision it will regret.

That last part is where Arrival drastically diverges from what one might typically expect from a big budget, sci-fi movie released by a major studio, for director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer exhibit little concern for delivering the kind of bombastic action spectacle that usually results when one utters the words "alien" and "invasion" in the same breath. In point of fact, the aliens — dubbed Heptapods — actually end up being one of the least interesting things about the movie, which places its focus squarely on Louise's emotional journey.

And what a journey it is. Nuanced and heartachingly truthful, Adams' performance brings a quiet, introspective quality to the proceedings that's seldom seen in the genre. After all, Arrival is unequivocally Louise's story, and Adams' consistently captivating portrayal of the film's main character is the anchor point to which the narrative is tethered. Bearing that in mind, Arrival is, for all intents and purposes, a character drama, and even though it's structured as a sci-fi thriller, thinking of the film strictly in those terms is bound to engender disappointment.

That being said, Arrival may be atypical of the genre, but there's more to the film than any of its marketing or promotional material have let on. Suffice to say, this is the type of movie that deserves to be experienced with minimal advanced knowledge. But more importantly, this is filmmaking that asks its viewers to enter with an open mind. And with a third-act revelation that puts everything that preceded it in a brand-new perspective, Arrival promises great rewards for moviegoers whose aim is to be stimulated intellectually, not just thrilled visually.

Arrival releases November 11th, 2016 from Paramount Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for brief strong language. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 56 Mins.

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