Your brain and your heart will both like Arrival


Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens November 11
4.5 / 5

From an awards-centric perspective, perhaps this is likely not the best year for a film like Arrival. After 2015’s (legitimate) #OscarsSoWhite uproar, films that have something to say about race, like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences, have to be seen as favourites.

On the other hand, Arrival has a better chance to transcend prosaic award races than its peers. Adapted by horror specialist Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, Final Destination 5) and directed by Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), Arrival adopts a classic sci-fi premise (aliens landing on Earth) and turns it on its head: are we remotely prepared to make contact with another civilization?

In Independence Day fashion, 12 spaceships (“shells”) materialize in different parts of the globe. There isn’t a common front to deal with the global emergency and each country choses its own way to tackle it. Even though bombing the bejeezus out of it is never far from their minds, the Americans attempt to establish communication with the ships.

With that goal in mind, the military recruits a despondent linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to establish a rudimentary form of communication. Not one to be tied by the government’s ultra-tentative approach, Banks makes considerable progress, but the nuances of language prove difficult to supersede. As if the pressure of mass hysteria wasn’t enough, other governments’ volatility in regards to the aliens (China, Russia) creates inconvenient time constraints.

Arrival’s cornerstone is the belief that language is the connective tissue that unites and divides civilizations. A second layer of subtext comes from the notion that language can shape one’s mind (as anyone able to speak in another tongue acknowledges). The construction of a bridge between cultures with no common ground is bound to hook the audience, and the layer of realism that coats the film helps to take it seriously.

The payoff is provided by an emotionally charged second half. I can’t get into it without spoiling the fun, but the resolution is both mind-bending and relatable, more stirring than Arrival’s ideological cousins Interstellar and Contact. I guess I could say there’s a genre trope you may feel inclined to dismiss that goes in an entirely different direction and hits like a ton of bricks.

While Forrest Whitaker and Renner deliver reliable support, this is Amy Adams’ movie and she delivers. So often cast as damsel-in-distress (Big Eyes, the DC universe charade) or arm candy (American Hustle, Leap Year), Adams is at her best when her characters have agency. In Arrival, her character balances academic rigour and human curiosity perfectly, and turns this world-changing event into a personal journey. Not a small feat for a sci-fi film.

Arrival is elegantly shot and scored. CG effects are sparse but spot on when used. Most importantly, here is a movie that doesn’t feel the need to dumb down the story and satisfies both rational and emotionally. A strong candidate for movie of the year.