Science fiction has become nearly indistinguishable from action/adventure. Studios tend to turn these strange concepts into fun adventures that can be enjoyed by the whole family and general audiences. Star Trek, for example, often resembles Star Wars more often than it resembles its own original series. This transition carries many positives, most notably the overall success of the franchise. But science fiction outside these big names isn’t handcuffed by the most crowd-pleasing habits. Arrival doesn’t exactly cater to viewers, instead testing their patience and attention span. Sounds fun, right?
Don’t be fooled; Arrival wields arguably the biggest payoff of the moviegoing year for those who stick with the atypical pace and plot. The worst possible thing to do entering Arrival would be to expect some sort of apocalyptic disaster movie. This isn’t Independence Day. In fact, it’s probably film’s antithesis to Independence Day. The most explosion-stuffed mess of a blockbuster is just as boring as some Oscar-bait misery festival if either species is executed poorly. With all that in mind, Arrival can be given a fair shot.
There are surprisingly few movies about the importance of language and communication. They may form the most important combination of things in the world, at least as far as the advancement of mankind is concerned. I’d bet even fewer movies are about language, communication, and aliens. Arrival tackles a very human topic via superhuman means. It uses a perceived threat to humanity as a burning fire under mankind’s collective ass, forcing a research team to advance through centuries of communication-based knowledge in a matter of months. The hovering alien ships, as simple as they are, exude a greater presence than the most convoluted special effects you’ve ever seen.
Amy Adams’ Louise Banks is well established as brilliant and uniquely talented in her field. At times, her surprising lack of competent colleagues is a small distraction in an otherwise airtight story. Given the significance of the task at hand, I expected more of an Imitation Game approach where the lead character is clearly the smartest one in the room, but every supporting piece lends some degree of a valuable contribution. It’s a minor complaint but, in a film with so few flaws, you’ll probably see it. Her dialogue with Jeremy Renner, which carries much of the second act, follows what I would’ve liked to see across the board. The two stars share a uniquely professional chemistry that develops a personal relationship without ever taking away from the much bigger picture.
I’m not necessarily trying to dodge all spoilers here, but the impact of Arrival’s twists and turns can be easily described without actually saying what happens. To safely sum it up, Arrival demonstrates what may happen when the human mind comes in contact with concepts that simply do not exist in our current reality. These include our perception of time, what our brains can physically process, or even how we go on living after irreversible discoveries. There’s more than one wow moment, and the road there isn’t nearly as long as the film’s pacing would suggest. Of every legitimate Best Picture contender, Arrival is the most thought provoking. The film has plenty of emotion, but even the emotional weight is meant to make you think more than it’s meant to make you outright feel. There’s an opening sequence that feels like the beginning of Up, with no shortage of feels, yet by the end of the movie you’ll view that same scene from a more psychological perspective. This contrast mirrors Louise’s personal journey. As her perception of reality adjusts, your perception of the film does the same.
Unless Natalie Portman’s “Jackie” changes my life, Amy Adams gets my hypothetical and meaningless vote for Best Actress by a healthy margin. She’s been every bit as great an actor as Leo over the last decade, yet she gets no “give her an Oscar” memes. Let’s end the equally criminal Oscar drought that’s hiding in plain sight. Arrival’s greatness appears to be built on a premise, from an outside perspective. I entered the experience with that mindset. But the thing that surprised me most was that Arrival is actually built on a character. Everything that happens and blows your mind along the way, while worth discussing on its own, ultimately feeds back into a character study disguised as the best sci-fi movie of 2016. I’d be very happy with Arrival winning Best Picture and, depending on what’s nominated, may be casting my would-be vote in their direction as well.
Unless Rotten Tomatoes and Internet hacks like me determine what you see in theaters, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen Arrival. I would strongly recommend this film to anyone who likes art and entertainment that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. With a little thought, patience, and a fascinating conversation after it ends, Arrival is among the best moviegoing experiences of 2016.