Space movies are making a comeback, thanks to audiences who only turn out for widescreen spectacles (same reason Westerns are coming back), and in Arrival we get one of the better recent space movies, even though technically, it doesn’t take place in space. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, and adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, Arrival is a first contact movie in the vein of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact that successfully makes vocabulary lessons some of the tensest scenes of the year.
Amy Adams stars as Louise, a linguist who, in the beginning, has a dead teenaged daughter haunting her. Adams is outstanding as Louise, beset by nerves but also bouts of genius, and unlike Emily Blunt in Sicario, who got sidelined at the end of the movie, this is Adams’ show from start to finish. And not only does she carry the film, she manages to keep the sentimental bits from overwhelming the more theoretical elements of the story, which Matthew McConaughey could not do in Interstellar.
And like Gravity, the dead kid serves to humanize the lady academic, and I was so irked until about halfway through the film when the trope got subverted in a clever way. But just because they avoid the dead kid trope doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t still fall into other, equally frustrating, clichés.
After The Martian, which did not bother giving Mark Watney a tragic backstory or even a Family Back Home to worry about him, it’s a little bit of a letdown to have so much sentimentality thrust into Arrival. Although, to be fair, Interstellar was also sentimental, and Arrival at least makes it work without utterly destroying its plot and gravitas like Interstellar did. It has an unusually optimistic moral for a Villeneuve film that life is worth living no matter the cost, and though this gets communicated via cliché, Adams is so naturally sympathetic she makes it work just by showing up.
When aliens arrive in twelve oblong spaceships that look like river rocks, Louise is sent along with a scientist, Ian (Jeremy Renner, in “charming sidekick” mode), to figure out what the aliens want. The most compelling angle of Arrival is the tension between the scientific need to understand and the very human need to self-protect, as militaries around the world are prepared to treat the aliens as hostile even as scientists collaborate to try and understand them. (If aliens ever do show up we’ll probably blow them out of the sky no questions asked because decades of invasion movies have made us unreasonably paranoid about outer space.)
Villeneuve is a master of space, and Arrival is a beautiful film as he makes use of stark achromatic spaces contrasting with the wide-open valley in which the spaceship has landed. As Louise gains more ability to communicate with the aliens, dubbed “heptatoids”, the spaces in Arrival widen, with light-saturated negative space slowly taking over the screen instead of the dully dark interiors of the military compound. There are increasingly more visual references to the natural world, too, as Louise begins blurring the boundary between human and alien.
Arrival is the Platonic Ideal of mainstream filmmaking—a smart film that doesn’t talk down to its audience and works as not only a science fiction film but also a thriller. I wish it avoided all clichés of how to make your female lead relatable, but at least, since they’re going there anyway, Villeneuve and Heisserer do it in a way that connects the B plot of Louise’s life with her time translating for the aliens. Arrival is the kind of film that rewards audiences for paying attention and thinking about how individual moments add up to a story.