When it comes to Science Fiction on screen, there is always a reliance on big budget visuals and explosions and all the things that fans of harder sci-fi seem to hate. And it's not that they hate seeing starships zooming by as they avoid laser blasts and what have you, but because one of the things that makes hard sci-fi so great aren't the explosions, but rather the ideas.
With Arrival, director Denis Villenueve gives us a tale that truly befits hard sci-fi, and does so in a way that not only makes it some of the best sci-fi we've seen this year, it also easily qualifies as one of the best films of the year period.
Faithfully based on Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life", Arrival opens up on the sort of somber note that seems to be cliche when it comes to sci-fi stories of this type, however, like the original story, the tragedy of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) losing her daughter Hannah is not a cliche as much as the backbone of a story that sets a tone that reverberates throughout the film.
After news that multiple mysterious objects are appearing across the globe, Dr. Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who needs her skills in linguistics to help decipher what they believe to be the aliens' attempt to communicate. Her initial curiosity and demand to see the aliens up close is immediately rejected, but soon after (and because there's no better choice), she's whisked off to Montana, where one of the 12 curved monoliths float.
Adams' Banks is joined by Jeremy Renner as mathematician Ian Donnelly, who in unfortunately has to plod through a relatively thankless role that ultimately serves as a means to an end, but because of Renner's affable nature, seems far less wasted than Whitaker, who seems on board to only grouse and calmly bark demands, which is pretty much all he's asked to do in films these days.
It should go without saying that Adams simply elevates practically every role she's given, and the way she accomplishes is so powerful, yet understated. When Dr. Banks meets the aliens, dubbed Abbott and Costello, she approaches them with calm wonder, and instantly serves as an avatar for the audience, who sees them through her eyes, not as something weird or even menacing, but more like a mystery that must be solved. Once she realizes that their "language" is a series of inky circles that resemble coffee cup stains, the film moves into familiar, yet interesting territory as Dr. Banks works to understand and communicate with the aliens.
Despite her slow and steady advances, humankind elsewhere teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers, and the interesting thing about this is that even though Arrival finished filming months ago, it seems like an uncanny entree into the next four years of a world where Donald Trump is president. While Banks and her team try to successfully communicate, others are working towards sabotaging everything, for no other reason than fear.
To understand Arrival, one has to accept that the film exists in layers, all within the same space. What the film lacks in flash and bang, it makes up in the sort of complex thought that culminates into a climax that honestly feels like an explosion of its own as it presents an original concept that outdoes anything M. Night Shyamalan ever tried to pull on an audience.
In fact, there's a moment where, if you've followed all the clues the film subtly lays out, you can get a pay off just before the film tells you that everything you thought was right. It feels like that moment when solving a rather difficult puzzle without using too many hints or clues or being told outright. There's an extreme satisfaction to that, and if we're being honest, it makes Arrival into an utter masterpiece, because what we have is a film that delivers hard sci-fi in a way that says any concept is filmable if approached correctly.
My sincere hope is that Arrival ushers in a new, more cerebral era of sci-fi that relies on unlocking imaginations while also entertaining with solid visuals, because as much as we've talked about how the story succeeds, another significant element of the film's success is the sumptuous, yet understated cinematography of Bradford Young, who manages to capture a somber mood that makes the film feel like a fugue state, a hazy, dream-like atmosphere that is equal parts surreality, dread and uncertainty.
There are no real monsters in Arrival, and that's the beauty of it. Here, a story about language and understanding reverberates in a number of ways, as the aliens are clearly trying to teach as much as Dr. Banks, and even though everything seems on the verge of collapse, it is a shared understanding that ends up saving the day, and doing so in a way that audiences will talk about for years to come.
See this movie. Be amazed by this movie, and know that if there is something out there, really out there, chances are, it's just trying to talk.