the mesmerizing sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is currently the best film of 2106:
1) It's as emotionally gripping, off the bat, as any movie since 2009's Up.
Pixar might never be topped for its ability to move an audience to tears within the first five minutes of a film, but this opening sequence comes close.
2) The visual design of the alien space ship and the aliens themselves are both original and complex.
3) This is an alien movie. Didn't you know? But it's unlike any alien movie you've ever seen.
4) The opening shot of the space ship — a matte-black vertical mancala stone or hoagie bun, one of 12 that has landed for unknown reasons on earth — huge and mysterious, as the Montana fog rolls over the hills and the surrounding military encampment, is one of the most arresting images of the year.
5) The plot is a welcome departure from the alien action movie's traditional impulse to pit earthling protagonists against
aims are much more specific, and
much nobler: They involve figuring out what it is the aliens want. Are they scientists or are they tourists? There's no real violence in the film; instead, and more powerfully, there is its constant threat.
6) At large, the movie is a powerful (but not a preachy) argument for the limits of military might. The American soldiers, led by a stumped Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), can't make headway in their diplomatic efforts, and so they enlist Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly, a physicist, (Jeremy Renner) to the landing site to try to communicate with the seven-legged creatures. Weber's impatience in one or two scenes, in the face of Dr. Banks' reasoned approach, is the only element in the script that doesn't quite scan as realistic.
7) Even without much action, Arrival
is the most gripping film in 2016 outside of Green Room.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario)
and Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year
) have crafted one eerie-ass space ship. The mancala stone's interior where the diplomacy occurs is not your typical sci-fi spacecraft. In fact it's more like a coal mine, with head-spinning laws of gravity and a clear wall, beyond which the two aliens (code named Abbott and Costello) are prevailed upon to communicate with the humans. The lengthy initial sequence when Banks and Donnelly first board the ship is full of all the curiosity and fear that you'd expect when confronting an alien species. Adams, who's phenomenal, pants and nearly passes out in her hazmat suit. Nudged by a dramatic score, you share her wonderment and her terror.
8) The movie does not shy away from the burdensome work of trying to decode the unfamiliar written alien language. It gets somewhat technical, but wisely includes a brief voiceover interlude to make sure you're up to speed. The detail makes you feel like an enlightened audience member. This feels like a smart script, like a smart movie; much smarter, at any rate, than the bland and brutish conquest-antagonisms that characterize the human-alien relationships in taint-tightening flotsam like Independence Day: Resurgence.
Plus, the tedious process of learning the language makes the payoff that much greater — ultimately, Banks wants to be able to ask "What is your purpose here?" And it's exciting
not knowing how the aliens will respond.
9) To be clear: Not knowing whether the aliens are good or bad makes for good, tense, gripping cinema, especially when so much hangs in the balance. Isn't this obvious?
10) The third-act developments are perhaps closer to the city limits of Crazytown than some viewers might appreciate, but they are conveyed clearly and elegantly, and rewards repeat viewings (speaking from experience). The final thirty minutes unite the physical and emotional climaxes — global forces prepare to launch military strikes on the space ships while Louise Banks comes to grips with critical information she's been given about humanity, and learns her central role in the conflict.
11) You may anticipate the final revelations, but they are nonetheless portrayed with beauty and power. It's an emotionally rocking finale, and Amy Adams delivers the magnificent knockout punch. Her courage is transferable. It speaks to hope and bravery in the face of tragedy.