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17 Nov 2016

A Low-Key Invasion: 'Arrival' Is a Thoughtful, Brilliantly Made Alien Movie

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A scene from Arrival. A scene from Arrival.

About two decades ago, Contact ticked me off when Jodie Foster supposedly traveled to some distant place in the universe—merely to have a chat with her dead dad. It was a trite storytelling letdown.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival also approaches the subjects of aliens, parentage and everlasting love, but it’s a much, much better movie.

Villeneuve is emerging as one of the best visual and pacing directors in the medium today. Arrival follows Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the vastly underrated Enemy (2013) as another movie of definitive vision, style and grace. No doubt about it: This man knows how to make a movie.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics teacher crippled by visions of a daughter who died of a rare illness. She lives a life of seclusion; the only things she really does are teach her class and mope around her lakefront home. (Man, that must be one abnormally high-paying teacher’s gig.) During class, a bunch of phones go off; a student instructs her to turn on the TV; and—bam, that’s how she discovers the planet is seemingly getting visited by an alien force.

Strange giant pods have parked themselves all over the planet, and nobody knows the intent. A solemn military man (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office and informs her that the world needs her. She has a sense of purpose again.

It isn’t long before she’s inside an alien ship trying to talk to the “Heptapods,” large elephant-like aliens with seven legs. She’s joined by a science officer played by a surprisingly low-key Jeremy Renner.

The aliens communicate visually with symbols that look like coffee-ring stains. They seem to say a few words that get parts of the world a little worried—and it looks like Earth might find itself at war. It’s up to Louise to decipher the code-like language and find out if the Heptapods want to harvest us, War of the Worlds-style, or give us a helping hand.

Adams could find herself in the Oscar race for this one. This is one of the year’s best performances thus far. (She’ll appear in another highly touted film, Nocturnal Animals, this month.) Louise doesn’t have many happy moments in this film, and other actresses could’ve made her a drag, but Adams makes her shine, even when she’s in despair. It’s some of Adams’ very best work.

Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is profound in a way similar to Interstellar: This is another science-fiction film taking a theme like universal love and making that aspect just as interesting as the gadgets and alien creatures. The movie, while challenging on a scientific level, definitely scores major emotional points.

The film was budgeted around $50 million, so it’s not a special-effects extravaganza. The scenes with the aliens are engrossing, but there’s nothing whiz-bang about them. Dare I say: The movie is rather laid back. I must give high props to cinematographer Bradford Young for shooting a movie that never seems anything short of very real. Those visuals are assisted by often Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson’s excellent score.

The movie is drawing comparisons to films like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, if you are looking for some sort of action pic, you will not find that with Arrival. It’s a movie that gives itself time to breathe, and while it does have a few action scenes, it is, for the most part, intellectual fare.

Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the Ridley Scott classic and another sci-fi effort. Based on his work with Arrival, I’m really looking forward to the Blade Runner sequel.

Arrival is playing at theaters across the valley.

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