Prolific Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve—who has released a film every year since 2013's Prisoners—continues his consistent streak of moody, intelligent, and thoughtful films centred on cerebral characters. Amy Adams stars as a linguist tasked with making contact with alien beings who mysteriously appear on Earth without any explanation. Based on the award-winning short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival uses science fiction and the "first contact" concept of alien invasion stories to ruminate how we use language and time to communicate.
While the film is almost entirely focused on Adams' character, Dr. Louise Banks, the small supporting is excellent around her in adding weight and gravitas to the story's narrative. Jeremy Renner is light and refreshing as a mathematician sidekick just as Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg give small but substantive performances as government officials strained with the possible implications of global war.
Written by Eric Heisserer, the understated script unfolds with a crackling sense of imagination as key plot elements slowly unfold using the basics of science and psychology. The filmmakers make the case for humanity and cooperation in the face of otherworldly threats just as the apparent menace of the alien visitors becomes clearer despite muddled communications.
Villeneuve and Heisserer make the case for shared information and communications as a means for problem solving. Cinematographer Bradford Young's wondrous visual imagery and composition only further highlights the methodical nature of the film as does the muted yet sumptuous colour palette. The unfolding story, crispy editing, and visual storytelling in tandem frame the alien story through Louise's experience of motherhood splendidly culminating in a satisfying thesis.
Arrival masquerades as a rather straightforward and delightful drama wrapped in a slow burn mystery with aliens that reveals complex ideals about human conceptions of language and communications. Adams gives a fiercely emotional yet grounded performance in the process of carrying the film and its hefty ideas forward in substantially meaningful ways.
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