The best science fiction films are often praised for what may seem like the antithesis of the genre: the essential humanity and drama in the face of spectacle and grandeur. So it is perhaps no surprise that Arrival, a film of no small ambition, takes as its subject nothing less than the human race, filtered through the unique perspective of expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams). It is an alien invasion movie without an invasion, and indeed it seems as if Denis Villeneuve is almost totally uninterested in the extraterrestrials except as vaguely benign, abstract concepts. Instead, he first focuses with minute detail on the great unknown of the potential threat of the pods (the twelve cavernous spaceships that land in seemingly random places around the globe) before lurching into grand displays of emotion that culminate in an entirely unexpected conclusion that radically recontextualizes practically the entire film.
Villeneuve’s strength is in his gift for immersive suspense, which he only truly gets to display in the first venture of Louise and her compatriots, including Ian Donnelly (a caring, amusing Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (a stolid Forest Whitaker), into the pod. Elsewhere, his sensibility comes off as too dour, particularly in the opening scenes which lean too hard into the panicked yet muted reactions of the public at large. Adams provides a welcome counterpoint throughout, infusing Louise with equal parts sensitivity and determination and a dash of ingenuity that almost feels like a light in the darkness of the unknown.