When one sets aside the time to enjoy a film, be it at the theater or in the comfort of your own home, the end goal is, invariably, to be entertained. Good or bad, exciting or not, a film is meant to serve as an escape from reality, a two-to-three hour journey that, upon the inevitable conclusion, allows one to easily transition back to the process of our daily lives as if the film had never existed.
When a film goes beyond that, venturing into the oft-risky landscape of the thinking filmgoer, a film transcends that of a mere escape and becomes something more-an experience, an adventure, a part of the filmgoer that shapes a moment in time and affects, even in the smallest of ways, how they think. Directors such as Christopher Nolan have ventured into the realm of thoughtful sci-fi with films like 2014’s Interstellar, and while Arrival may on the outset be viewed as something of a spiritual cousin to said film, all comparisons end as Arrival begins.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang called Story of Your Life, I knew little about Arrival in the time leading up to its late 2016 release outside of a few intriguing trailers and nearly unanimous praise from the fortunate few who had been lucky to see it as the year went on. This, however, is probably the best possible way to go into Arrival-no other film exists as a better example of maintaining unbiased expectations than this one. Arrival’s premise may seem somewhat basic when it comes to science fiction-when a number of alien spacecraft suddenly appear around the planet, it’s up to one of the world’s leading linguists (Amy Adams) along with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) to establish a means of communication so as to learn as much as possible about why these visitors have come so suddenly and their motives going forward. Along the way, our leads must deal with the hot-and-cold cooperation of the military, the government, and other nations, all of whom are also attempting to kickoff first contact in the safest way possible.
Director Denis Villeneuve has been churning out mid-budget works of art over the past several years, most notably 2013’s phenomenal Prisoners and last year’s Sicario, but with Arrival his career hits a significant moment, with a well-written, well-directed film that flows along nicely and which compels the audience to pay attention in a way that never feels forced. Johann Johannsson’s score is a character itself, dancing effortlessly between ethereal and eerie, while Bradford Young’s cinematography give the movie an atmospheric sensation appropriately benefiting the subject manner. Plus, for a movie with minimal special effects, primarily reserved for the appearance of the spacecraft and aliens themselves, all look excellent, probably some of the finest depictions captured on film yet.
When it comes to the cast, Villeneuve has brought out captivating performances in all, with Adams leading the charge in a portrayal packed with feeling. Renner holds his own alongside her perfectly, with Forest Whitaker as an Army Colonel who, despite possessing a slightly bizarre accent, makes the most of his character while knowing when to step back and turn the reins over to Adams and Renner. Even Michael Stuhlbarg, in a role as an anxious government agent which could be considered the villain, appropriately plays the part, never allowing it to get out of control or go too far over the top.
This may be a somewhat shorter review, but let me assure you there is no better way to watch Arrival than with as little knowledge of what to expect as possible. It’s a movie that succeeds in every way, one with some unexpected moments and a crescendo of emotion that brought about more than a few tears as the credits began to roll.
If ever there was a defining entry into the world of film, it truly has arrived.