Director Denis Villeneuve‘s science fiction feature “Arrival” stars Amy Adams (“Man of Steel,” 2013) as linguist and professor Louise Banks. When aliens show up hovering over 12 different parts of the world, Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland,” 2006) hires her to decipher how they communicate for more answers. What she finds out may have less to do with understanding the visitors from outer space and their intentions than with the power of language itself.
Adapted from writer Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” Villeneuve’s latest feels like your everyday alien invasion film. Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out,” 2016) sparsely use the visual iconography of the sci-fi sub-genre. Interestingly, it’s only a setup for a sharp left turn into an exploration of human selfishness, the power of empathy, and—over everything else—the resolve to hold onto each other despite the temporary and unpredictable nature of human existence.
These themes are effectively woven into a brilliantly written film that’s as much science fiction as a character study. Its clever narrative deftly discusses the nature of time as a social construct for the convenience of humans and—for this purpose—boldly breaks the boundaries of a film to follow the three-act structure. (Not that there aren’t three acts, but it’s a kind of defiance to the beginning-middle-end narrative progression). Without spoiling too much, let’s just say Villeneuve and Heisserer use the Kuleshov effect to turn the non-linear storytelling of “Arrival” from a gimmick to an indispensable part of the film.
Bradford Young’s (“Selma,” 2015) specialized talents as a cinematographer work beautifully here. From using vintage lenses for more character in each frame to the efficient utilization of real estate in every single frame, the man absolutely nails the look and feel of the film. His contribution to the environmental storytelling Villeneuve’s mostly known for in his movies enhances viewing immersion, pushed further only by editor Joe Walker (“Shame,” 2011) and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (“The Theory of Everything,” 2014).
It’s worth noting that Walker’s momentary editing genius is on full display here. His edit decisions follow a singular rhythm and aim more to create emotional impact in “Arrival” than to speed—ironic, considering the movie is less than 2 hours long. Combined with the stirring atmospheric vibe of Jóhannsson’s soundtrack, the film is basically strapped and ready to give viewers an emotionally compelling moviegoing experience.
However, the brilliantly understated performance of Adams throughout the movie takes not just the cake but the entire bakery. While both Whitaker and Jeremy Renner (“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” 2015) lend terrific supporting turns, Adams steals the show in every scene. Her subdued body language never betrays Louise. She’s an excellent actor who brings so much to the table, convincing us to empathize with the woman she plays and taking us down an emotional rollercoaster with her. As the credits roll and the ending hits you right in the feels, we think of Louise’s tough choices in a situation where anybody else would literally go the other direction. And Adams makes us believe Louise like nobody else could.
I don’t think it’s wise for anybody to bracket “Arrival.” Sure, it’s a science-fiction film, but far from what its marketing would have you believe, Denis Villeneuve’s latest shatters most—if not all—tropes. What you end up watching onscreen is a sort of meditation on time and how humans learn and unlearn it. This sci-fi focuses not on spectacle but on what really matters to people: connection.