The perfect distillation of the movie "Arrival," as well as that of the last year in politics, happened when I watched the film and the closing credits rolled. Just as the film ended, someone several rows behind me started cheering and applauding while another person sitting in close proximity to them began booing. Then everyone started laughing and all was right with the world.
That is about as accurate of an assessment of "Arrival" as it's possible to get. No one will shrug their shoulders and offer a sigh of ambivalence to the film. This is a love-it-or-hate-it motion picture, with some big emotion wrapped up in a big third act twist that the marketing campaign has done an admirable job not giving away.
"Arrival" stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist who is brought on by the U.S. military to try to communicate with an alien race that has touched down in a dozen locations. She teams up with sexy scientist Jeremy Renner (basically playing a cross between Jeff Goldblum's characters in "Independence Day" and "Jurassic Park"), a theoretical physicist there to use numbers to reach the aliens if Banks fails to decode their incredibly complicated language.
That's really all I should tell you, since watching the twists slowly unfurl is part of the joy of "Arrival." This is a heady science fiction drama about language and communication. Audiences after something with more action and spectacle will leave sorely disappointed, as this is much closer to "Contact" and "Interstellar" than "War of the Worlds." Discovering the purpose of the aliens is the entire thrust of the film, which, even after the final reveal, leaves enough open-ended to encourage some fascinating speculation.
As the Chinese and Russian governments are quickly looking to attack the aliens, the Americans do their best to decode the alien language so they can learn exactly what the aliens need. Everything that happens in this movie, good and bad, happens because of a failure to communicate on the part of humanity.
Director Denis Villeneuve ("Enemy," "Sicario") proves he is one of the finest directors working today as he turns the story into a very matter-of-fact look at an alien "invasion." The film reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion," which took a viral outbreak and made it very commonplace. A science fiction movie that is essentially about the importance of working together should have come across as cheesy and saccharine, but in Villeneuve's hands it's hypnotic and distressingly plausible. In this current social and political climate, it's a message we would do best to hear.
Adams, Renner and Forest Whitaker are all excellent, but the script and direction both take center stage. Villeneuve is much more interested in setting up tone and mood than creating typical sci-fi thrills and action. It's a very thoughtful film and the third act twist begs the viewer to go back for a second look at what has come before.
"Arrival" is slow paced, methodical and demands to be seen. The thematic content alone is enough to make this film one of the most important movies of 2016. Just go into it aware that you're going to love it or hate it. There's no room for middle ground.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX and Sisters Movie House