Some of the best films in more typically obtuse and loud genres are the ones that strive for something a little bit deeper. Look no further than the recent spate of films like Interstellar or Gravity, messy or imperfect as they may be, that have been immensely satisfying and immersive as personal stories wrapped up in science-fiction dressing. Joining them, and my personal favorite of the three, is Arrival, a fantastic story about alien life interacting with humanity that really boils down to a mother retelling her life story to her dying daughter.
The film’s story expanse is global, but its soul and precision-like focus is on a deeply felt personal one. Amy Adams, one of our greatest working and most versatile actresses currently working, leads Arrival with an empathetic, confident performance that gives the film its grace and brains. She digs deep into Louise, a linguistics professor that gets called into service by the US government when 12 UFOs land on Earth. She’s not the first person brought in to try and establish communication, but she’s able to develop a strange symbiosis with them and eventually cracks their language’s complicated code.
Much of the success and lingering power of Arrival rests on Adams’ performance, particularly the numerous close-ups of her face. Director Denis Villeneuve diverts attention away from the CGI aliens, they look like gigantic cephalopods made of fine leather, and onto the more grounded, human work of his actress. The amount of trust he places in Adams’ prowess reminds me of the golden age film-makers who simply lit an actress of great power and let her rip. As the multiple timelines converge and shift around there is Adams’ face holding the center.
Even better is how the film places an equally strong emphasis less on reactionary politicking and explosions and far more on the power of science and building bridges between cultures. Much like Spotlight could make investigative journalism feel like high-tension superspy thrills, Arrival can transform linguistics into the heady stuff of action-film spectacle. Who knew trying to decipher strange inky circular blobs could be so enthralling?
If there’s any true negative to level against Arrival it’s a pervading sense that the film tends towards the antiseptic, even at points when the emotions are supposed to pull the rug out from under us. I find this forgivable, and even that it made a certain bit of logical sense once we figure out what these strange flash-forwards and diversions to an idyllic home life are in service towards. I’d happily sacrifice Meryl Streep’s record-breaking nomination or Emma Stone’s serviceable (and soon-to-be anointed) work in favor of nominating Amy Adams’ work here. I’d happily split up the tech categories in this film’s favor. I’d happily throw more love at Arrival then it’ll probably walk away with come Oscar night. I just really loved this film.