After turning in a pair of stellar crime dramas with Prisoners and Sicario, not to mention the ambiguous and fascinating thriller Enemy, director Denis Villeneuve is ready to try his hand at another genre, and this weekend audiences will have a chance to examine the fruits of his labor as Arrival makes its way into theaters.
Reviewing a film with as many secrets as this one can be a tricky endeavor, as Arrival is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, so I’ll do my best to remain vague about the specifics. The film centers on Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics approached by the US military to help establish communication with an alien race, whose colossal ships have appeared above various locations around the globe. She operates under the watchful eye of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), a career military man with little patience for Louise’s meticulous methodology, but finds … in Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the brilliant mathematician assigned to work as her partner.
Anything beyond this most basic of synopses would venture into spoiler territory, no doubt detracting from the impact of Arrival‘s many revelations. With Sicario, Villeneuve proved himself a master at building suspense and balancing audiences on a razor-thin edge, and those same sensibilities are applied to this quieter, more intimate story in a remarkably effective way. Catching our first glimpse of the alien creatures or witnessing Louise and Ian’s first successful attempt at communication are incredibly gripping moments, and we share every bit of their fear, anxiety, excitement and relief as Adams and Renner remind us why they’re two of the best in the business.
Audiences looking forward to the sort of large-scale warfare and destruction featured in other alien encounter films like War of the Worlds or Independence Day may be in for some disappointment here, as Villeneuve is more interested in exploring rich thematic concepts about our perception of time and the way various societies might respond to the uncertainty that comes from learning we’re not alone in the universe. Arrival has almost certainly been influenced by other heady sci-fi pictures like Contact or Close Encounter of the Third Kind, but the film offers a fresh and unique perspective on some of these notions, along with a few of its own ideas that will generate plenty of conversations in its aftermath.