by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 11, 2016

Amy Adams stars in 'Arrival'
Amy Adams stars in 'Arrival'  

The next big sci-fi epic is here, but hold up fanboys: In the case of "Arrival," it's not Mars that's ascendant. It's Venus.

That's not to say "Arrival" is a bad movie. It's smart, metaphysical, observant, and often tense. It's about the arrival of a dozen giant starships to points scattered across the Earth -- "shells" that are shaped more or less like traditional UFOs, though they have a tendency to hover, edge-on, just above the ground. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is one of the experts recruited to travel to Montana, where the sole ship to visit the United States perches, imperturbable and mysterious. Though she has a whole team, Louise works most closely with a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who expects her abilities -- he even congratulates her on how she thinks like a mathematician -- and follows her lead without any need for shows of male dominance.

Equally respectful of Louise is the supervisor of the contact site, Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), who proves something of a linguist himself in explaining to Louise what it is she needs to tell him so that his military higher-ups -- men who speak the language of aggression and defense -- can comprehend what she's doing and what she needs in order to push progress forward when it comes to establishing a meaningful dialogue with the visitors, an inscrutable race dubbed the "Heptapods."

The first question Louise needs to ask is what the aliens intend by coming to Earth. Are they here to conquer? Are they looking to impart words of friendship, or a little sage advice? All the nations on Earth where the Heptapod ships have taken up stations are looking for ways to communicate, and all the nations start out by sharing what clues they learn as to the aliens' language and statements -- until, that is, an ambiguous statement from the visitors prompts international panic and causes the network of communication across national lines to collapse.

Louise and her colleagues keep their heads in the midst of global confusion, but for Louise there's an underlying question causing additional stress, and that's an uncertainty that she's not actually going out of her head. She's experiencing intensely realistic hallucinations; is it a response to the enormous pressures she's working under? Or are the aliens using her own memories selectively in order to communicate with her? Perhaps more importantly, which of these two possibilities poses less danger to the project, not to mention to humanity in general and Louise in particular?

"Arrival" smacks, here and there, of another philosophically minded sci-fi epic, "Interstellar." Don't flee for the exits at the mention of the title; like "Interstellar," the film tackles weighty, cerebrally complex issues and some hard scientific problems, not to mention it feels large in scope (to the point that there are times you can feel the director trying his hardest to amp things up and make them larger and more overbearing). The music, by Jóhann Jóhannsson, occasionally lapses into the kind of grating, noisome racket that made Hans Zimmer's score for "Interstellar" such a trial.

But "Arrival" is by far a better movie, which is to say it succeeds where "Interstellar," after a successful and soaring ignition, crashed and burned. There are stakes involved, and everyone in the story spends every waking moment with those stakes in mind; we don't get swept off on excess detours that add to the running time without adding a lot to the story. And while there is a paradoxical, and very sci-fi, trope that comes into play (not unlike the one "Interstellar" tried to juggle but ended up fumbling -- and it doesn't work that well here, either), there are so many other grand ideas (and so much restraint used in trying to stop the film from toppling over into the merely grandiose) that the film's execution, while imperfect, is still effective.

In short, despite some similarities, this film is not "Interstellar." But it's also not "Star Wars" or "Independence Day," so take note: Wait a bit and go see "Rogue One" if pitched battles and the prospect of planetary devastation constitute your idea of a proper science fiction movie. "Arrival" has a big budget, but it's got the heart of a smaller, more thoughtful project; it's more "The Day the Earth Stood Still" than "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers."



Louise Banks :: Amy Adams
Ian Donnelly :: Jeremy Renner
Colonel Weber :: Forest Whitaker
Agent Halpern :: Michael Stuhlbarg
General Shang :: Tzi Ma
8-Year-Old Hannah :: Abigail Pniowsky
12-Year-Old Hannah :: Julia Dan
6-Year-Old Hannah :: Jadyn Malone
Dr. Kettler :: Frank Schorpion
Gala Guest :: Nathaly Thibault


Director :: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter :: Eric Heisserer
Producer :: Shawn Levy
Producer :: Dan Levine
Producer :: Aaron Ryder
Producer :: David Linde
Executive Producer :: Stan Wlodkowski
Executive Producer :: Eric Heisserer
Executive Producer :: Dan Cohen
Executive Producer :: Karen Lunder
Executive Producer :: Tory Metzger
Executive Producer :: Milan Popelka
Cinematographer :: Bradford Young
Film Editor :: Joe Walker
Original Music :: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Production Design :: Patrice Vermette
Supervising Art Direction :: Isabelle Guay
Art Director :: Robert Parle
Art Director :: Jean-Pierre Paquet
Costume Designer :: Renée April
Casting :: Francine Maisler


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.