Denis Villeneuve's 'Arrival' Is Brainy Sci-Fi With A Beating Heart [TIFF Review]

Denis Villeneuve's Arrival begins with a premise we've seen in a hundred summer blockbusters. One day, aliens arrive on Earth, in the form of twelve mysterious ships scattered around the globe. Their purpose is unclear, and humanity is naturally both intrigued and terrified. Where it goes next, though, is a welcome return to grown-up sci-fi, more Contact or Interstellar than Independence Day.

For starters, the aliens don't open with an attack. And we Earthlings don't, either. Instead, the U.S. military calls upon Louise (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor, to try and make contact with the alien spaceship in Montana. From there, Villeneuve carefully unspools a story that's equal parts heart and intellect, encompassing memory, language, loss, love, grief, and the passage of time.

Louise is a withdrawn and serious sort, not much given to smiling or joking. Perhaps her reserve is explained by the opening scene of the movie, an extended memory montage that shows Louise having and raising a baby girl, and then losing her to illness. "I used to think this was the beginning of your story," Adams' Louise says at the beginning of the sequence, but "memory doesn't work like that." Prickly though she may be, Louise is brilliant in her given field. When the aliens begin to "speak" in their language, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) brings her on board, along with a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner). And as Louise begins working toward an understanding with the aliens, she finds that the work is affecting her in ways she can't understand, control, or predict.

Jeremy Renner in Arrival

Adams has been nominated for the Oscar five times in the past decade, and Arrival is an effective reminder of why that is. She commands the screen effortlessly, even when she doesn't appear to be doing much of anything, and she embodies Louise so wholly it's easy to forget we've seen her in dozens of other roles before. Louise isn't an especially showy performance — it doesn't involve tics or prosthetics or the kind of ostentatious outbursts that attract awards attention — but like so many others on Adams' resume, it's quietly a great one.

Everything about Arrival feels meticulously crafted, from the gorgeously composed shots (you could probably freeze just about any moment in this movie and come away with a stunning still) to the Jóhann Jóhannsson score. Like Sicario, Arrival uses its soundscape to draw you into the movie. When Louise dons a radiation suit for her first meeting with the heptapods (as they call the aliens), I could practically feel the humidity through the sound of her breathing. The aliens' spoken language is a rumble almost more felt than heard. Combined with his resolute commitment to keeping Arrival grounded — this really is a world just like ours, except with aliens — Arrival starts to seem like an experience we're having, not just a movie we're watching.

It's hard to say too much more about Arrival without digging into spoiler territory, so I'll just leave you with this: Arrival hit me where I live. Its true concern is nothing so trivial as extraterrestrial life, but questions like how we understand the world, how we remember our own stories, why we allow ourselves to suffer, and what we get in return. It's brainy sci-fi with a big, bloody, beating heart.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10