For a movie that's been pitched as a sci-fi thriller fraught with action and international and political intrigue, Arrival opens with a surprisingly emotional sequence.
In a scene set to Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight"—a string-heavy composition that feels keyed to something deeply sad in the human spirit—we see the short, happy-then-sad relationship between Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter, Hannah (played by several actresses at ages four, eight, and 12). The vignette calls to mind the prologue of Up: Louise and Hannah enjoy the early charms and challenges of parenthood and childhood before the girl slips away, dying from an incurable form of cancer.
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Following this self-contained short story, we see Banks again, living alone on a lakefront home, drinking a glass of wine to close out the day, telling her mother that she feels fine. What Banks doesn't know is that her, and our, whole world is about to change. Aliens arrive, plopping giant ships down in the territory of every major world power. Banks and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are tasked by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) with decoding the alien language and helping them understand our own words before the Russians and the Chinese go to war with the mysterious ships—or the rest of the world.
Upon entering the alien vessels, Banks, Donnelly, and their military minders are treated to an exhibition of Arthur C. Clarke's third law when the gravity flips and their perspectives shift. The ceiling becomes the floor, an empty expanse to the waiting ground beneath inducing vertigo in anyone who might wish to look down. Or is it forward? Or backward? Either way: Leave aside the technological implications of such a device; the storytelling point that director Denis Villeneuve wants to make is clear. Our perspectives—about space, about time—are about to shift. You are entering new territory and you are not in control.
Adams is magnificent, as usual. There's a sweet, lonely sadness to her turn as Dr. Banks, one that only grows more poignant as the film builds to its shattering climax. Villeneuve is one of the most interesting and versatile mainstream filmmakers working today, following his gripping procedural thriller Prisoners with the noirish nihilism of Sicario and the smart sci-fi of Arrival.
Arrival is arguably Villeneuve's finest film yet, one that signals the emergence of a director who has total confidence in his ability to tell a story in a manner that is both unexpected and also familiar and fluid. He skillfully gives and withholds just enough information to and from the audience to keep them guessing without ever letting on to the fact that they're in the dark in some crucial regard.
Arrival is a magnificently made movie and likely the best I've seen so far this year. See it as soon as possible and on as big a screen as you can. You don't want to miss out.