In a long history of films dealing with aliens appearing to the people of Earth, something rather unique happens during the beginning scenes of “Arrival.” As television broadcasts show everyone the 12 alien space crafts that have appeared in random places all over the globe, we don’t get a clear image of what everyone sees – we only get a long, beautiful take of people staring at the screen in disbelief. The big reveal of the ships is still waiting for the audience, and when the film’s characters finally see a ship in person with unforgettable imagery accompanied by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wonderfully eerie score, it is a moment that does not disappoint.
Without any surprise, director Denis Villeneuve, who took a far-fetched crime/mystery project like “Prisoners” and escalated it with rich cinematic tones, does the same with this science-fiction material. What a treat it is when the material itself develops into something that took some thought as well.
“Arrival” generates the awe-inspiring atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” but manages to deliver a cohesive story free of needless action/horror, and stars relatable characters coping with the unbelievable in ways that emotionally involve us with the mystery they’re trying to solve.
Amy Adams plays a linguist recruited to a team of scientists researching the ship floating above rural Montana, which, along with the other UFOs in different parts of the world, can be entered through an opening every 18 hours. Inside, through a long tunnel, is a gigantic window where aquatic-looking creatures emit indecipherable noises. Their mission is to learn the intentions of the strange visitors. The linguist and a scientist, played by Jeremy Renner, begin to defy the regulations set by their superior (Forest Whitaker) in order to establish some level of communication.
The film really orients one’s mind with the daunting task establishing dialogue with something that is not of this world. There’s no telling if an alien life form uses words, has emotions or even understands what a question is. While panic and hostile fear escalate throughout the world, the teams in each country communicate with one another in a struggle to understand the meaning behind the arrival.
Just when I thought that good science fiction was becoming scarce, I started watching the TV series, “Black Mirror.” Between that excellent BBC invention and this film, I’m feeling pretty spoiled right now with material in the great style of “Outer Limits” and “The Twilight Zone.”
The screenplay comes from Eric Heisserer, whose résumé of screen credits are so absorbed by sensationalist horror it is a surprise that he worked from a story by celebrated science-fiction author Ted Chiang to give a thoughtful director like Villeneuve a mind-bending fantasy about problem-solving.
Without divulging spoilers, one of this movie’s best qualities is in a tired cliché introduced at the beginning, which until this movie’s twist in the third act, seems like a weak aspect of the film. The ability to repurpose an old concept in a way that gives it twice as much weight is reason enough to celebrate “Arrival” as one of the best science-fiction films of this decade. VT