Growing up I was a huge fan of science-fiction novels and still am to this day. My favorite authors ended up being along the lines of what’s known as the A, B, C’s of sci-fi, with “A” meaning Asimov, “B” for Bradbury, and “C” for Clarke. On the television side, I was an enormous fan of The Twilight Zone, and film-wise I still think 2001: A Space Odyssey is hard to beat.
For years I’ve been praying for a big budget smart science-fiction film that rivals what Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke created with 2001. I had high hopes for Interstellar, but it ended up falling flat for me. Arrival is a tour-de-force, and the film that Interstellar desperately wanted to be.
Arrival begins with a vignette of a linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, and her daughter’s short life as she grows up to be a teenager, and then dies of a rare disease. Then the film veers into the arrival of twelve alien spacecraft that appear around the world. Dr. Banks along with mathematician Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, are recruited to try and communicate with the aliens.
The thing I love most about classic science-fiction is that it tries to explore big ideas of science and humanity. Director Denis Villeneuve, who is helming Blade Runner 2, does both with such a rare eloquence that you can’t help but be pulled into the film. Rarely do I come out of a movie wondering about the nature of time and space, and our place in the universe as I did when I walked out of the theater.
The mystery that surrounds the aliens and what they want is a very winding hook throughout the story, especially when you consider how hard it is to translate one human language to another. Trying to translate an alien language with alien thinking to English can lead to even more errors. There’s also the idea of language as a virus, where the language you think in affects the way you think, which is explored to great effect here.
But what really stays with you is how this film takes a huge concept of something like first contact, and yet it’s the personal story of Dr. Banks, which intertwines with the plot that really stays with you. Science-fiction tends to do poorly at the Academy Awards outside of technical categories, but if any sci-fi film has a chance to win a major award, it’s definitely Arrival. This will be the film to beat at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
(Editor’s Note: This review was originally published during TIFF 2016 in September.)
Here’s the trailer for Arrival: