Fantastic Fest Review: ‘Arrival’ Starring Amy Adams And Jeremy Renner

If you knew how your life would end, would you do anything differently? This is a question poised in the late proceedings of Arrival, the latest from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. A man who gave us the foreign language Incendies before transitioning to U.S. releases like Prisoners and last year’s Sicario, Villeneuve once again lends his expertise with nuance and theme to deliver a film that works on a number of different levels.

It’s best to go into Arrival knowing as little as possible, so do your best to avoid advertisements or read about its development before it arrives in theaters this November. That in mind, I’ll do my best to keep facts about the plot at a minimum.

Twelve towering half oval-shaped objects, all unidentified, have positioned themselves across Earth in areas that have no discerning correlation. Panic around the globe ensues as the knee-jerk response is to assume the worst. But there is no invasion or declaration of war. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, is assigned to work with the U.S. military and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try to understand and communicate with the alien lifeforms, two of which they’re able to interact with inside one of the half ovals hovering over the plains of Montana.

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Unidentified objects. Alien creatures. Sci-fi staples that have lent themselves to classic literature (H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds) as well as B-movie shlock. Arrival leans closer to the former than latter. Obvious cinematic comparisons would be Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the non-Keanu Reeves version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Villeneuve’s film feels appropriately timed. The central conceit involves communication and language as the key in shaping things. At least that’s what Louise believes. Ian is in the science camp, his opinion being science dictates. Their working relationship could have easily become a battle of opinions and witticisms (think Ellie Sattler and Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park). Arrival forgoes such trappings; the two work in tandem, using language and science to look for patterns and structure in deciphering the circular inkblots the aliens discharge from their tentacles.

Tentacles? Inkblots? When did we venture 20,000 leagues under the sea? Hold on. Keep your tray tables in their upright and locked positions and bear with me. The highly advanced species, with its physics-defying transportation (it’s aerodynamic, ecological friendly, but does not have rich, Corinthian leather), has come here for a purpose that reveals itself the longer Louise and Ian work with the visitors. But as days stretch to weeks some global powers are getting itchy trigger fingers, looking for a preemptive strike.

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Eric Heisserer, who previously penned the remake to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Final Destination 5, does a bang-up job on the blacklisted screenplay, which piqued Villeneuve’s interest in the project in the first place. Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” (published in 1998), we get the generic title Arrival, likely to aid audiences in understanding the film’s premise sight unseen. That same audience will be in for surprise, because the film has bigger ideas than what is usually associated with aliens coming to Earth. In short, don’t expect Independence Day.

Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s direction are strong, but Amy Adams’s performance as Louise is the film’s emotional strength and should not to be overlooked. The splendor of her acting is more internal, and is illustrated with recurring moments of her and her daughter. These vignettes are beautifully lensed by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) and evoke Terrence Malick’s pastoral Tree of Life. Special recognition goes to incorporating Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” into the soundtrack. Emotive and elegant and timed perfectly.

To say Arrival is a risk for Paramount Pictures is an understatement. You rarely see a weighty science fiction movie of this scope get studio backing. But it’s likely to be one that connects on different levels and warrant repeated viewings. It’s an exploration of language and syntax that presents a scenario where it is best to have a united front in solving a problem with nations around the globe work together instead of on their own. What a concept.

Score: 9/10

Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer (Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” written by Ted Chiang)
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes

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