One trend I’ve been absurdly grateful for in the last few years is the return to Smart Sci-Fi, IE sci-fi movies where the focus is more on being a good story and having engaging characters, than on ridiculous high octane action (although, having those doesn’t hurt). The last few years have seen a laundry list of great sci-fi films that meet this criteria, and almost all of them have made it onto my top 10 of any given year (District 9, Moon, Source Code, Snowpiercer, Attack the Block…look, I’ll be here all day if I name them all).
But that doesn’t mean that aiming to be a smart sci-fi film automatically lands you in the best of the year category. Failing at it if anything makes me more annoyed, since you’re usually blowing a good premise along with the movie itself. Monsters blows, everything Neil Blomkamp has done since District 9 is pretty bad. So I usually end up kind of nervous when I go into a film that’s billing itself as smart sci-fi.
Our film opens with Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist professor mourning to loss of her child to cancer, going about her business teaching, when suddenly 12 alien ships land at various (apparently random) points throughout the world. She’s initially kind of blase about the whole thing, until a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up and asks for her help translating the alien’s language. She is joined in this endeavor by a theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who wants to ask them about how they traveled there.
But they can’t just spend the next few years hanging out with the aliens and chatting until they can translate properly. The other ships have landed in other countries, who are worried that the aliens might play favorites and hand one country or another a weapon or crazy piece of technology. And even back in America, the military is worried the aliens might want to attack, or that their own populace might start to go a little stir crazy with the a giant f**king spaceship hanging out in their backyard.
So yes, it’s a movie where the primary thrust of the narrative is a communications expert trying to translate alien, while gently explaining the basics of linguistic and communication theory to people, with a ticking clock provided in the form of the chance that stupid people will decide to be stupid. In other words, it’s a movie that might as well be designed to be crack specifically for me. But don’t let the degree to which this movie seems to be designed for me undercut my opinion. It’s a fine example of the genre, and an engaging thriller besides.
The thing that makes the movie great is the script. It can’t be easy to sell an entire movie based around two people trying to figure out an alien language, with almost no action to keep the audience paying attention. But even I, who can sit through 2001 without faltering, was surprised by how well Arrival keeps audience interest, simply through making sure we always understand the mechanics, the stakes and the characters. Add in a pair of third act…let’s call them reveals, and we’ve got a script that I’d definitely like to see nominated for a screenwriting Oscar.
The direction and effects work also do a lot to keep the movie engaging and exciting. The first entrance into the spaceship and subsequent reveal of the aliens is as an effective builder of mystery and awe as I’ve seen in a sci-fi film, and the aliens themselves (and, just as importantly, the effects used to create them) look fantastic. It’s not the most original alien design in science fiction, but it’s original enough, and the design of the alien’s language is definitely original, more than enough to make up for any deficits in alien design.
Add in some great performances, partially from Renner and Whitaker, but really most of all from Amy Adams, and you’ve got an easy contender for one of the best films of the year. If I have to pinpoint a problem, aside from the fact that the human antagonist turns out to be a Chinese general, instead of the faux-Alex Jones we see at one point, it’s that the film does occasionally move a little slow. That’s not really a complaint from me, as I like the more thoughtful approach, but if you’re expecting a breakneck pace…well you might want to choose a different movie, but yeah, it moves a little slow at times.
But that’s really beside the point, as the deliberate speed is in the service of a genuinely great movie. 2016 is winding to a close, which means we’ve mostly got bad kids movies and Oscar bait from here on out (along with some good movies that are also aiming for Oscars), so we should cherish the movies that don’t fit into those categories. And Arrival is certainly one of the best movies of any time of year. Highly recommended.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile, and he would like you to recommend you avoid spoilers pretty hard.
– fantastic script and story
– great acting
– beautiful direction and CGI
– occasionally slow pace
– weak villain