Arrival is a perfectly realized, occasionally terrifying, and wholly mesmerizing high-concept sci-fi thriller.
It takes the question of “what if aliens landed on Earth?” to a remarkably layered and realistic level. Twelve massive spaceships land, in seemingly unrelated places, across the planet. Pandemonium, chaos, and the threat of global war soon follow.
Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US military to make sense of what the aliens want. She teams up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) on a series of missions to meet and communicate with whatever is on board the space vessels.
This first half of the film recalls the deliberately paced sci-fi horrors of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. Sequences of the military team scaling up a space craft, and monstrous figures creeping out of the mist, all set to a horrifying score, make for some of the scariest scenes since The Witch.
As with much sci-fi, and certainly non-fiction, however, much of fear comes from the unknown. As Louise and the team fall into a rhythm and break ground in their work, the aliens become less threatening and more friendly, striving to share their message with the human race.
Arrival’s approach to this more optimistic theme pivots the film into more Malick-ian territory, with lucid montages and non-linear narrative. This proves to be more than just a stylistic choice, and the film takes on a significant weight of emotion and meaning.
If ever there were a 2016 awards season contender that I wasn’t expecting to be a tearjerker, it was Arrival. On the surface, it may appear to be just another sci-fi flick, but its thoughtful storytelling and moving emotional elements elevate it to a sublime level of sophistication.