Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival is just that: the story of life, the lives we live, the lives we have and will live, and what that means to humanity. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, the film deals with the military acquiring the help of Linguist Louise Banks (Adams), as well as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), to communicate with an extra-terrestrial arrival of global proportions.
Mystery is at the core of what makes Arrival so engaging, since no one knows who these extra-terrestrials are or why they’ve come to Earth. The film doesn’t immediately show the aliens or their ships, either, instead choosing to follow Louise as she learns about the arrival, gets contacted by the military, and goes to one of the alien sites. It’s a carefully paced film, often times leaving the camera running on a landscape or using no cuts. It’s a science-fiction drama, one where character takes precedence over visuals or effects. Not to say the visuals or cinematography isn’t impressive, but the story itself and its characters are definitely the focus.
Speaking of the story, while I won’t go into it in much detail, I will say it surprised me with how simple and straight forward it is. While the film can be described as “thinking man’s sci-fi”, it does require one to be thinking as they’re watching. Arrival only works if you brought your brain with you, utilizing it and letting it work as you take in and analyze all that’s happening on screen. The story goes in some interesting places, exploring how we as a people react to an unexpected event or crisis and how we’re supposed to work together, as well as how important language is to our survival as a species.
And speaking of character, Amy Adams does an excellent job as Louise, who is also the film’s clear star. Whitaker and Renner are also great, but this is Adams’ show, and it shows. From the opening moments to the final minutes, she’s the magnet that keeps the film energized, as she showcases curiosity, sadness, determination, and hope. Renner’s character Ian is a bit different, showcasing comic relief and wanting to apply logic to the situation. This makes Louise and Ian an interesting team, as they work together to learn what it is the alien visitors want and have to say.
As previously mentioned, the film goes along at a careful pace, and this includes the way info is distributed to other characters and nations, as we see the ships and how other nations around the world react. However, the focus is always with Louise and the site she’s at, along with the people she has to work with, and this is probably the film’s biggest strength, as it allows the film to stay concentrated on what’s most important. With another story and another director, Arrival could have been a film that divided its focus among so many other nations and locations, characters and situations. Instead, it sticks primarily to one group of characters, their interactions with those other nations, and how they themselves try to makes sense of the extra-terrestrials. It’s this singular focus that makes the film so much more personal than many other films dealing with beings from another world, resulting in an impactful pay off.