Science fiction isn’t just for nerds and action junkies any longer.
Science fiction isn’t just for nerds and action junkies any longer. As anyone who saw Independence Day: Resurgence can tell, the shoot-’em-up days of aliens and spaceships are long past. We like our science fiction with a dose of intelligence which is why movies such as Gravity and Interstellar performed well at the box office, but also scored big with the critics. Even The Martian was nominated for best picture. This return to cerebral sci-fi takes us back to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey which was a reaction to the hokey space oddities from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Denis Villeneuve’s past films are mainly grounded in reality (save for the finale of Enemy and some groan-inducing plot twists in Incendies), making the director an interesting choice for Arrival, the story of the day when we make contact with aliens. It’s a quiet, almost non-violent film, making it a sharp departure from everything else in his oeuvre, especially his critically-lauded Sicario. However, Villeneuve’s steady eye and willingness to submit to the genre without losing the current of compassion that runs through his past films makes Arrival an indubitable success.
Amy Adams stars as Louise, a linguistics professor who is grieving the death of her young daughter. When 12 UFOs position themselves in different places around the world, the military conscripts Louise to make contact with the aliens inside. Along with a mathematician (Jeremy Renner), Louise must work to communicate with the aliens before the Chinese military loses its patience and launches an attack on the spaceship in their territory. During the bulk of the movie we watch Louise try to learn the complex language of the aliens, octopus-like giants called Heptapods. But for all of Louise’s compassion, time is running out before one military or another launches an attack.
For a science fiction film, Arrival doesn’t lean hard on special effects. Instead, it relies on emotion and nuance to move things along. Imagine the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind minus the bombast and you sort of get the idea of what Arrival is all about. Both Adams and Renner ground the film with their earthy performances, carrying the film as it drifts into its mind-bending final act. And even if you can guess where Arrival is going before Villeneuve shows his cards, the movie still pays off.
If there is anything to detract here, it’s that the film doesn’t really break any new ground. Once again, it’s an American who cracks the code and saves the world, so to speak, much like Independence Day. Also, the language of the Heptapods is extremely complex, and it is unclear exactly how Louise learns to communicate. A lot of the trial and error is glossed over in montage. Villeneuve can be somewhat clinical when it comes to emotions. There are a few big moments that are muffled, scenes that could have added life to a pretty flat middle act.
While Arrival may not scale the same heights as Interstellar or present the visual feast of Gravity, it’s a worthwhile entry in the same genre. This is an excellently made film that questions our notions of time, kindness and understanding. It presents an optimistic view of humanity, one that we need now more than ever.