From the trailer for “Arrival,” which just showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, you’d assume it’s a CGI-heavy sci-fi movie about aliens coming to earth to make contact. If they come in peace or to destroy us is the question that’s left open.
But that’s just the hook to get you in the theater. The truth is “Arrival,” directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) and starring Amy Adams, is a moving story that is more about humanity than whether beings from the sky come in peace.
Based on a short story by sci-fi author Ted Chiang titled “Story of Your Life,” “Arrival” follows linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), whom the military calls on to help start a dialogue once the aliens have landed.
The world goes crazy when 12 large pod-shaped ships suddenly show up in different areas of the world. There’s one placed in the US, in an open field in Montana. Dr. Banks and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are the brains behind the US operation to figure out what the aliens want.
They communicate with all other countries investigating pods. But the head of the military arm of the operation, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), is getting pressure from the White House to get answers. And the stakes grow higher when China decides to disband from the process and attack the pod that’s within its borders.
It’s all thrilling, and the science is not heavy-handed and very easy to understand, but it’s all a MacGuffin, a device Alfred Hitchcock loved to use. It’s a detail in a story that is important for the characters but turns out to be less important for the audience’s needs.
The real story (and warning: spoilers here) is the relationship that Dr. Banks builds with the aliens inside the pod, playfully named Abbot and Costello, the legendary comedy duo. Through her continued conversations with the duo in trying to understand their language, she begins to uncover what they want, but by delving into her own memories.
There are certainly thrills, helped by a dramatic score and use of pauses for tension, but the movie really runs off of the captivating emotions of Dr. Banks, delivered perfectly (as usual) by Amy Adams – who will definitely receive an Oscar nomination for this performance.
Another way of capturing that emotion is the beautiful cinematography by Bradford Young, who gives the movie a very Terrence Malick-like quality with sweeping views of nature and closeups of intimate interaction.
All elements come together under the direction of director Villeneuve, who has taken one step closer to becoming a top auteur working in Hollywood.
“Arrival” will certainly be an Oscar contender in numerous categories, but outside of awards, it’s a film that should be celebrated for its masterful storytelling.
“Arrival” is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and will hit theaters on November 11.