I think that The Arrival will be the movie that finally puts Denis Villeneuve on the map as one of the best directors in Hollywood (if Sicario hadn’t already). The alien visitation plot is something that’s been done a million times in a million ways in science fiction, but Villeneuve finds a way to take a fresh approach; focusing on communication between the species, the differences in perception two completely separate species would encounter about self, about family, and about time. Alien obelisks have landed all over the globe causing panic. Amy Adams does her normal stellar job playing a linguist brought in to try to communicate with them to see what they want and why they’re here. That’s all you’re getting on plot, because if you’re a fan of Villeneuve, you know there’s usually an “O.Henry” moment (the author not the candy bar, people) of plot pay-off that knocks you on your flat on your butt.
I’ve heard some criticism of the movie as slow or repetitious, but in a Villeneuve film, plot is always the point and he is using those repetitions in this film to lull you into complacency while also slowly ratcheting up the tension with a skill that no one has done so effortlessly since Hitchcock. When you get to the pay-off moment in any of his films, after all the groundwork has been laid and the pieces set on the board, when you realize where you’v’e been and the story journey you’ve been on, it’s like a door opening in your mind. You can count on one hand the number of directors who can get your cerebellum cranking like that.
Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker lead a strong supporting cast, but this movie is all Adams’ and she continues to prove herself one of the best actresses of her generation. I’m sure this isn’t the role that’s finally going to give her the Oscar she’s been robbed of at least twice, but she and the film are doing well in early award season nominations.
Here’s the wonderful thing about Star Wars being hot: Hollywood can’t copycat it like it normally does whenever something gets big. The closest it can come is greenlighting a ton of science fiction projects (like this) that normally wouldn’t have gotten the backing. Yes, that means there’s going to be some serious science fiction duds (Passengers), but we’ll also get films like this, and for fans of sci-fi, that’s fantastic. The Arrival is smart, cerebral science fiction, and one of the best films of 2016. And this is Villeneuve’s weakest movie (not a knock on a movie; just plugging my man Denis’ skills).