Early on in Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival, it becomes pretty clear that for an alien-invasion movie, it’s actually not all that interested in aliens. As 12 mysterious spacecraft land in different locations around Earth, we see college students getting texted with the news, newscasters describing it, and a linguistics expert played by Amy Adams taking it all in — but we don’t see the ships themselves. Humanity’s reaction is what’s important, and it’s only after the film has slowly, methodically established its priorities that the ships — or "shells," as they’re dubbed — are revealed.
It sets the tone for what’s to come: a mature, thoughtful piece of science fiction that uses a first-contact premise not just as a setup for a doomsday scenario, but as a platform for an incredibly powerful, nuanced look at love, relationships, and the human condition itself. If big-screen science fiction has been going through a maturation process over the past few years, searching for a truly genre-defining moment, it has finally arrived.
Warning: minor spoilers ahead
The films opens as Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) struggles with the death of her teenage daughter, trying to find solace in her daily routine. That process is suddenly interrupted when the 12 shells appear on Earth and the U.S. military comes asking for her help. It turns out they’ve been able to establish some minimal contact with the alien creatures in the shells, but their language is unlike anything known to man. Joining forces with a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks goes inside the ship and meets the aliens face-to-tentacle, and slowly starts learning their language and teaching them ours. She’s convinced their intentions are good, but with shells located all around the globe, other countries are having their own interactions, and soon Banks is trying to uncover the reason behind the visit before China or Russia kick off a war with the aliens.
Accessible without ever shying away from the science in sci-fi
That’s the most broad, generic description of the film I can possibly provide, and that’s where I’m going to leave it, because Arrival is a film that’s not so much built up out of plot points and story beats as it's built from emotional and character turns. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story "Story of Your Life," Arrival doesn’t flinch when it comes to serious discussion of linguistics, math, or the complex semagrams the aliens use for their written language. But screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) is remarkably deft in his ability to use those concepts in service of character and theme. The results feel remarkably accessible, even when Arrival is tackling dense concepts that would normally be verboten in a studio film.
Another huge component of that is Villeneuve's approach. The director has been steadily building a rich body of work with movies like Sicario and Prisoners, and working with cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), he creates a beautiful world of cool, symmetrical compositions and ever-patient camera moves. It would be foolish to avoid the Kubrick comparisons — several shots when Banks and Donnelly first enter the alien ship read like direct callbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey — but that trademarked sterility isn’t just artifice; it’s the nature of the world Villeneuve is creating here. Whether it’s Banks, Donnelly, or the head of the Chinese military, everyone is alone, and can’t find it within themselves to connect with one another, even in the face of world-changing circumstances.
The promise of overcoming that inability to communicate — not just with aliens, but with one another — is what lies at the heart of the film, and it’s an idea that’s brought forward most directly by Amy Adams' performance. She's played a variety of roles covering a range of colors, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her so raw and emotionally compelling. Watching her struggle with the alien language, driven by memories of her daughter, is like mainlining empathy, pushing the film toward a crescendo of an ending that is quietly triumphant and heart-wrenching.
Watching Amy Adams' performance is like mainlining empathy
The funny thing is that we’ve seen swings at this kind of thing before — and more recently than you might think. In 2014, Interstellar launched with the ambitious mission of using a hard sci-fi story to explore the notions of legacy and sacrifice between a father and a daughter. With the talent of Christopher Nolan, a lead actor at peak McConaissance, and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne all on board, expectations were understandably high. While the end result was lovingly rendered, ultimately it fell short — and it wasn’t because the film’s puzzle-like construction or loop-around ending were too convoluted.
It failed because it didn’t resonate emotionally. Interstellar leaves all its grand themes and ambitions inert and lifeless. Arrival's extraordinary success is that it combines its bravura style and grand science-fiction questions with tremendous emotional intelligence and a heart so full, it’s ready to burst. It’s a film that dares us to look ahead, to open ourselves up to vulnerability and sacrifice, and to take chances and engage with the world around us, no matter what dire consequences we fear may be just around the corner. That transcends genre, or even medium. It is simply art, and at a time when so many seem intent on walling off themselves or their countries, it’s exactly what we need.
This review originally appeared on September 10, 2016 in conjunction with the film's screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been republished to coincide with the film's wide theatrical opening.