With the information that we have of what lies beyond our planet, far outweighed by what we don’t know, films about making contact with extraterrestrials will always be a source for Hollywood to mine from. The newest example is Arrival, from Sicario director Denis Villeneuve; which tells the story of an expert linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, as she tries to communicate with the aliens that have landed in Montana, with others landing in other countries around the world. She partners with Scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, to unlock the written language of these beings, which are made up entirely of inkblot like circles.
The story Arrival is relatively straight forward, as after Louise is recruited by the military to translate the alien language, the plot plays out through a series of small interactions between the team of Louise and Ian, as they attempt to communicate through speech, and then ultimately written language. The scenes are spaced out enough over the course of the film, including a few montages of learning, so it never feels like an interrogation, or a long winded, and drawn out conversation. The scenes themselves, while vital to move the plot along, are not very engaging in the first half of the film, because it is just a repetition of Louise writing a basic word on her board, followed by an inkblot response, with this sequence repeating with each separate conversation. These moments only intensify later in the film, once the team has a better handle on the language, thanks to a 20 day or so time jump, which helps the plot pick up. The moments in between interactions with the aliens, involve the team pouring over information, hoping to crack the code, and exposition moments of learning how other countries around the world are dealing with their respective encounters, usually involving civil unrest, and escalating military force. These portions don’t live up to the rest of the film, as the most interesting aspect of the story centers around Louise’s character, with the military elements acting as filler. There is a subplot regarding some renegade soldiers, who do not like the way the encounters are being handled and try to act on their own, but the whole thing feels tacked on, and doesn’t really do anything to further the plot. The final act of the film is the best part, though to go into any detail about it would ruin the experience, but the final third of the film elevates the rest, which had been good, but not great.
What was great throughout however, is the performance of Amy Adams. Her work is most often fantastic, and this film is no exception to that, as she does a wonderful job conveying the many layers to her character. She is the central focus of the story, and she is able to carry this film on her back through her performance. Her character conveys a range of qualities as the story dictates she should, from a confident swagger, to doubt, and fear. Her performance is one that is already garnering attention for awards consideration, and it is all rightly deserved. The rest of the cast is good as well, Jeremy Renner does not have many scenes in the film, but the way he and Adams work together on screen, brings out the best in each performance. The government representation comes in the form of an Army General, played by Forest Whitaker, and a CIA agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who both have their own ideas and orders of how contact with the aliens should go, and both serve as the main antagonists for Adams and Renner. Of these four main characters, none give a poor performance, though it is clear that Adams is the standout, and she confidently takes over the scenes she is in, which is not a detriment, as she is the focal point.
Arrival comes together as better than the sum of its parts, though many of its parts are very good. The story is engaging, the score is phenomenal, and the performance by Amy Adams elevates the whole film to another level. There some elements that do not work, and do drag the film down; but when viewed on the whole, they do not ruin the experience. Arrival is absolutely worth the seeing for Amy Adams alone, but thankfully the rest of the film is an enjoyable experience, that takes a familiar concept of alien encounters, and tells a story that stands on its own.