It is not often that modern Hollywood makes a movie that forces one to think about the message and engages the audience on a deeper level than thrillers, action fare, or kids’ movies usually achieve. This weekend, Hollywood gave movie goers Arrival starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and this movie is a fantastic respite from the mindless violence of Jack Reacher, the non-stop action of Doctor Strange, or the brainless giggles of Trolls. Arrival engages the viewer on several levels, each one dependant on the next. The characters are deep, complex beings and how they interact drives a lot of the plot of this mind-bending story. It was a relief to see something on the big screen that forced me to engage more neurons than a film has required since I saw Tree Of Life. This movie is a must see if for no other reason than that.
Twelve alien space ships, shaped like kidney beans, appear suddenly around the world. When there is no communication either from the ship or from the government, people begin to riot. There are no laser battles, no fighter chases and no last minute escapes in this story. The ships just sit there. The world governments try in vain to figure out how to talk to the visitors. Finally, when all else fails, they bring in Louis Banks, a well-respected academic specializing in linguistics. But America is not the only government trying to communicate and Louise and her team must crack the code before other governments decide on a less diplomatic solution.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Banks, the linguist recruited by the government to try to communicate with aliens whose ships mysteriously appeared over twelve locations around the globe. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who runs the lab in which Louise works and Whitaker is Colonel Weber, the officer heading the Montana alien site. Adams is a gem in almost every role she plays. She can seamlessly go from a live action Disney Princess in Enchanted to a whistle-blowing nun in Doubt to Lois Lane in Man of Steel to an emotionally vulnerable linguist and take the viewer along with no questions. Jeremy Renner is a likeable rouge in almost every role he plays. He has a quiet, understated command to his presence that makes one feel comfortable around him and he plays that effectively in his role here. Forest Whitaker is both the benevolent leader and the bureaucratic nemesis for the two doctors who try to figure out the alien language before fear leads to violence.
The only part of the film that might bring viewers some consternation is the very hook of the film: Temporal Mechanics. This story weaves its narrative in a deceptively linear story telling fashion, while back-handedly telling the other story of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations of the film and was not too stunned to appreciate the creative way the writers and directors tried to slip one by on me. It is not often that I am surprised by a plot twist, so I really appreciate when I encounter one I didn’t see coming. Be advised, though, that the auditorium was so stunned by this one that when the credits started rolling, no one moved for several moments.
Technically speaking, Arrival is not the state of the art. In fact, photorealistic CGI has gotten so commonplace that it is expected to be good. The aliens, one of the more interesting non-humanoid designs I have seen, look as real as made-up aliens can be expected to look. Where the film excels, at least to me, is the language they developed for the aliens. Perhaps it is the literary nerd in me, but I was totally in with Louise as she tried to figure out how the aliens used a three-dimensional form of writing to communicate. Whoever came up with that, should win a technical Oscar.
Arrival is not the typical fast-paced, action-laden Hollywood blockbuster. Nor is it the emotionally draining, pull-at-your-heartstrings drama. This film is an intellectual journey into the human condition. It informs the viewer while revealing a piece of humanity and entertains all at the same time. I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this film, simply because it made me think. If you’re looking for mindless escapist fare, this film will give you a headache. If you want to think about what you’re seeing, run, don’t walk to the theater today and see Arrival.