Although the popular culture has embraced science fiction and fantasy—and if we’re being pedantic, mostly the latter—there still is a relative scarcity of hard science fiction in cinema, i.e., sci-fi grounded in realism and often devoid of fantastical action elements, instead relying on high concepts to deliver a more cerebral entertainment experience. As is beginning to become the trend, though, at least one of this genre comes out around year’s end in order to appeal to the Oscar crowd, and this year the big contender is Arrival. And yeah, it’s pretty good, even if it’s hard to share why it isn’t quite award-worthy.
The film opens with Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in a montage as we watch her interact with her daughter, who grows up, falls terminally ill during adolescence, and dies. Cut to Louise on the day an alien presence arrives on Earth in twelve concave ships, apparently posing no threat yet still sending every country into hysterics and defensive positioning. As a talented linguist, Louise is recruited to breach the communicative barrier between humans and one of the alien ships, along with the assistance of a mathematician, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). While the two work on decoding the alien language, Louise becomes plagued by vivid memories of her daughter, forcing her to cope as the world edges closer to violent confrontation with the mysterious new presence.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) has always excelled at slow, methodical pieces that trade as much on their bleakness as they do the perseverance of his protagonists against that oppressive feeling. His foray into sci-fi is no different, as he has created a film that expertly builds tension as the world tries and fails to come to grips with the existence of extraterrestrial life. Louise and Ian act as avatars for the audience, being the only two people to truly see how non-threatening the alien race is and are therefore the best at decoding what exactly their purpose is on Earth. The bleak oppression characteristic of Villeneuve’s work isn’t from the external force, but rather from the fear and irrationality that comes from within humanity, and that dark reflection of ourselves is as troubling as it is true. (How unfortunate that this film is released after this year’s presidential election.)
And this is where I have to stop being specific. See, so much of what makes Arrival interesting and elevates it as a piece of science fiction is rooted in a plot twist that is so novel and intriguing that to spoil it would be a disservice to the film. What I will say, though, is that within that novelty does lie some level of contrivance that is frustrating considering just how interesting the third act ends up becoming. Part of this has to do with a desire to raise the stakes of the third act, but the mind-bending recontextualization that I refuse to spoil works so well that the heightening feels superfluous. In fact, if more screentime had been devoted to this twist, it may not have had to have been so bluntly exposited, though I will admit it would take a better writer than I in order to pull it off.
Arrival doesn’t enter the pantheon of my favorite films of 2016, and the frustrating thing is that to tell you why would diminish the experience of what is still a great film. It’s the kind of film that will make you want to rewatch in order to see what new information you glean having experienced the ending, and even then the opening and closing scenes are heartbreaking enough to induce sobs. Any film that can do that level of emotional engagement is worthy of the price of admission.