Verdict: Please see this movie, immediately if possible. It is unique and powerful, thematically deep, and features a woman in a sci-fi movie that is hers, through and through. Hollywood, take note.
Synopsis: “Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators (Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker) when gigantic spaceships touch down in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind.”
This is Amy Adams’ film, through and through. It may have some other big names in it, but it is her film. Renner gives a perfectly fine performance, like he usually does, and Forest Whitaker is serious and stoic, in another fine showing. But Adams runs away with the movie. She continues to show how versatile and emotional she can be, after giving us just a taste of her range in American Hustle and The Fighter. This is going to be her next Best Actress nomination, I’d bet my bottom dollar.
The other big stars of this film are the V/SFX and sound editing, categories that are often overlooked, but certainly shouldn’t be. They can go a long way toward setting the tone of a film, and making the world you are seeing convincing. And the folks behind Arrival did just that. The V/SFX is incredible, really bringing to life the spaceship, and the aliens within. But honestly, it is the sound guys that are real winners. Language and vibration becomes less aesthetic, and more an integral part of the film.
Plot and theme wise, Arrival bucks trend out of the gate, focusing heavily on Adam’s reaction to the aliens’ coming, rather than the event itself. While other films in the genre focus on the malevolent intentions of the aliens (who are typically invading), or the misconstrued intentions of a lone alien (Paul, Super 8, E.T.), this does not. Most of the movie is spent trying to figure out the aliens’ intentions, rather than shooting first and asking later. This leads to a rather deep thematic focus on how to solve problems: by talking to someone, rather than shooting them. A truly novel idea. While this larger critique of US foreign policy is taking place, Adam’s story deals heavily with inevitability and choice. Overall, it is one of the more successful versions of a modern, deep, heavy-themed sci-fi film.
While I do love the V/SFX and sound editing, some of it is incredibly entrenched in the same aesthetic we have seen in the past 5 years. Some of it is really novel, like the design of the aliens and their language. Other design choices like their ships or the general color palette are very much the same old thing. It looks very similar to Interstellar and Prometheus. I don’t completely fault the movie for this, as it is part of a much larger stylistic trend in film.
There are a few times in the movie where the script attempts to be really intellectual, and it can fall somewhat flat. These are rare, but noticeable.
It is delightful to see yet another woman in a lead science role in a movie. It has frankly been a great year for that, and we need more of it. So score one for Arrival. However, it still could have done more to promote representation by having more than one major POC actor, and one major woman. There is a smaller role played by Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays it fine, this is not a remark on his performance) that could just of easily have gone to a POC/woman. Arrival is a good example of a movie that is making progress, and should be celebrated for that, while keeping in mind that it could always do more.