Every couple of years, directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, John Sayles, John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Nolan add to the pantheon of films addressing making contact with alien life. The notion of actually communicating with interstellar visitors, so memorably celebrated in five iconic music notes in the finale act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sets the stage for serious modern films tackling this task of translation, but Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral science fiction drama Arrival (A-) radically riffs on a familiar tune with a stunning viewpoint and sustained atmosphere that remixes a well-worn genre. The Canadian director follows successful crime thrillers Prisoners and Sicario with an all-out orchestra to the outsider, exploring what it means to be imbued with preternatural power to alter the course of human events or perhaps even bend time if only the universal ability to understand one another is possible. After twelve mysterious UFOs begin hovering over world cities, the U.S. military recruits a linguist masterfully played by Amy Adams to assist in making sense of alien communication. What follows is a deliberately paced, at times puzzling and consistently revealing opus on the phenomenon of language and science as bridge builders to deeper understanding and community. Adams thoroughly dominates the film and is engrossing and believable in showcasing her convictions and discoveries. Jeremy Renner is successful at playing her supporting scientist, the kind of role typically reserved for a love interest, but there’s scant time for romance when the world is at stake. The film’s effects – striking and unusual – buoy a thinking person’s meditation on big issues of international and cosmic collaboration. The kindest accolade of all is that the film inspires a desire for repeat viewing and discussion.
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