2016 hasn’t been the easiest year on the sci-fi genre. There have been some bright spots, to be sure, with “Star Trek Beyond” and “Midnight Special” both garnering considerable and well-earned praise. Those films have been contrasted, however, with “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which combined all the mistakes of its predecessor with none of the charm, and “The Divergent Series: Allegiant” and “The 5th Wave,” which both made compelling cases for putting a kibosh on the modern YA genre. That’s why Dennis Villeneuve’s (“Prisoners”) “Arrival” is such a breath of fresh air. Because it’s not just a good sci-fi movie; it’s the best kind of sci-fi movie. In fact, it’s the best kind of movie in general.
It nails the basics, first of all. Amy Adams (“Man of Steel”) gives the performance of her career as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist called in to establish communications between the American government and a duo of aliens who landed in Montana. Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) and Forest Whittaker (“Platoon”) do great work as well, but there is never a scene that isn’t absolutely dominated by Adams, who perfectly conveys the awe, confusion and devastation at the seemingly otherworldly transition her character undergoes.
The cinematography by Bradford Young (“Selma”) is flat-out gorgeous. Whether it’s the alien craft dwarfing the mountainside it hovers above, the mind-bending shifts in gravity inside the thing or the simple intimacy of the scenes between Adams and Renner, Young makes every frame a work of art. The French-Canadian Villeneuve proves yet again why he’s one of the most exciting directors working in Hollywood today, as his assuredness in both his slow pacing and nonlinear storytelling serve both to separate the film from others of its genre and to aid it in exploring its themes.
It’s in those themes that “Arrival” truly becomes something special. It’s not a film content to throw an action scene in every half hour on the mark to keep viewers in their seats. It isn’t the kind of movie where the evil aliens are outwitted at the last possible second by a Goldblum-led crew of plucky humans. It’s a movie defined by what it says rather than what it does.
For one, it’s a love letter to language. Louise Banks waxes philosophical about how language is “the cornerstone of civilization” and can change the way people think about and comprehend even simple subjects. Renner narrates to explain how the word “heptapod” was decided upon for the aliens. The heptapod language itself is incredibly inventive and fits both visually and thematically into the world of the story. A love of language, in big ways and small, somehow permeates every scene of the movie.
More than that, “Arrival” is a film about humanity. This isn’t new to the sci-fi genre, as even the lesser films listed earlier managed to boil down to “People working together is good, so work together, people.” Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”) dig a layer deeper, though. “Arrival,” at its core, is about how humanity deals with grief — both the existential grief that comes with realizing the universe isn’t as empty as we thought or the far more relatable grief of loss. Ultimately, it also uses its wildly unique structuring to demonstrate that moving beyond that grief is often the only way to live a life worth living.
It’s difficult to describe just how special “Arrival” is without delving too deeply into what could be considered “spoiler territory,” so it must be left at just that. It’s the third in Denis Villeneuve’s hat trick of modern masterpieces (with “Prisoners” and “Sicario” rounding out the list), a high-concept sci-fi film that’s an absolute must-see for fans of the genre.