10 out of 10
Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks
Directed by Denis Villaneuve
Fantastic Fest has always been rich in genre cinema, cinema that pushes the boundaries and defies expectations. This is a festival that proudly explores genre cinema from around the world and yet finds commonalities even amidst dramatically different cultures. The opening night film, Arrival, speaks perfectly to that theme, and I can’t remember a film that’s opened this festival to such acclaim and success. Denis Villeneuve has a distinct voice in cinema, but none of his previous films can prepare you for the emotional and intellectual sledgehammer that is Arrival. There are very few films in science fiction that can move the spirit as well as challenge the mind; cinema that can give us complex ideas and philosophy alongside sweeping emotion amidst the spectacle – films like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Arrival can proudly be placed alongside those masterpieces of science fiction. Since Incendies, Villeneuve has grown exponentially as a filmmaker, and he seems to be interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and never taking the audience’s intelligence for granted. His films, in short, treat us like we know a thing or two, and these days that feels like a gift.
Arrival plays with our ideas of linear storytelling, and our traditional approach to material like this is to take what we are seeing at face value, but Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival is based on the short story “Story Of Your Life” by Hugo award-winning writer Ted Chiang) are interested in what’s underneath; in the mechanics of communication, and the challenge of communicating, especially in a world where most people along all races, creeds, and political spectrums are unwilling to listen. They are exploring our need to share, to contact, and how that can drive us.
When twelve alien spacecraft arrive at various locations on Earth, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is looking for a linguist, someone who can cross the barrier of understanding. To that end he finds Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and teams her with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to open the lines of communication. They are running out of time; other countries, especially China, are becoming more hostile to the alien presence, taking the aliens’ silence as an aggressive act. Tensions around the planet are high, with emotions overtaking rational thought. But Louise senses something more from the aliens than hostility, and as she learns more about how to communicate with them, strange echoes in her life begin to take hold of her, pieces of a past that she cannot explain.
It’s best to be vague about specifics in Arrival, especially in the film’s second half, when everything becomes clear and the ideas and themes of Arrival become more prevalent. Amy Adams is tremendously great here; this is the finest work of her career, and it’s very comforting to see her take command in a way that isn’t militaristic but with empathy and with intelligence. She is a heroine that uses her mind first and foremost, and it’s inspiring to see a film that flat out rejects the politics of first reactions for a measured, reasoned response. Jeremy Renner reminds us all why he was nominated for his performance in The Hurt Locker; he is a quality actor who also puts his faith in knowledge, but also knows when to take that leap of faith that leads to true discovery.
I love the aliens of Arrival, which are more like advanced octopi, but have personalities that play very well. They are more advanced, and the film gives them an appropriate sense of awe, but there also seems to be a yearning to share, to bond, to come together with humanity. Even when humanity behaves at its worst, the film suggests, these setbacks are minor, and that as long as we are willing to step forward and meet these challenges, that these challenges will meet us halfway.
Arrival isn’t cold or clinical for all the technospeak and philosophy; it has a strong emotional power that brought me to tears several times in the film. There is tragedy and loss and devastation ahead, but to refuse to allow those dark moments to change and enrich us, Arrival suggests, is to deny and to cut off a part of ourselves. Arrival plays with concepts of time, but instead of explaining those concepts in a technical way, Arrival places it firmly in an emotional place that makes it very relatable for the audience.
We may not understand our place in the universe, the architecture that we move within, but we do understand our place in the lives of our loved ones, and through that Arrival embraces concepts that are deep and resonant. This is science fiction of the heart, to put it tritely – in Interstellar Jonathan Nolan tried to explore love and family in complex situations and themes, and he didn’t quite succeed. Arrival wildly succeeds, and the result is one of the most transformative cinematic experiences of the year. If you love cinema that challenges you, that is awe-inspiring, passionate, and bold, Arrival fits that bill. This is one of the best films of the year.