There's a series of images late in the brainy, gorgeous sci-fi movie Arrival that jolt you into reconsidering just about everything you've seen so far. It's not really a twist; those are almost a cultural cliché at this point. (Thanks, M. Night Shyamalan). It's more a point of emotional clarification, and it hits like a velvet hammer.
Amy Adams felt it the first time she read the script, which is based on Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life." "When I got to the end I had to immediately go back," the five-time Oscar nominee says by phone. "It just felt really fresh to me. It walks that tightrope of having emotional depth, but not giving anything away."
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist called in to help American forces communicate with squid-like aliens who have landed their spacecraft around the globe. Her thoughts are haunted by images of her daughter, the victim of a fatal illness. Her work is shared with a physicist (Jeremy Renner), who heads the science team while Louise handles the language translation.
I thought I knew where Arrival was going. I did not. And when it got there I found myself deeply moved. It's not just that the story unfolds like a flower, though that certainly helps. Arrival is also a film of great visual patience. It makes the concrete feel mysterious, almost abstract. Director Denis Villeneuve has watched his share of Spielberg (who hasn't?), but Arrival owes as much to the metaphysical sci-fi of Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris; Stalker) and Chris Marker (La Jetée) than to any American space epics.
It casts a trance if you let it. It becomes an experience, one that makes Adams jealous of anyone going in cold.
"I'd love to experience this film as an audience member as well as having had the great pleasure of doing it," she says. "I'm kind of bummed I don't get to just watch it. It's like, I know how this ends!"
That's one thing Arrival has in common with more run-of-the-mill twisty escapism. It's hard to really talk about the film, and to write about it, at least about the qualities that send you buzzing out of the theater when the lights go up. It would be unconscionable to deprive anyone of that buzz before they can feel it for themselves. (But see it soon; there's a statute of limitations on spoilers).
As for images like the verdant, fog-enmeshed landing area, or the eerie view from just below the oval-shaped spacecraft hovering just of the ground? Or the typically alert, nimble performances by Adams, Renner and Forest Whitaker? Or Jóhann Jóhannsson's otherworldly score? Those are fair game.
Most important, Arrival has the soulful humanism that infuses the most resonant sci-fi and fantasy, from movie masters to writers like Ray Bradbury and, yes, Ted Chiang. They use the genre to expand our thinking on who we are, who we've been and who we could be. That last part is important. Arrival gives us some fear and geopolitical skullduggery, but it provides larger quantities of hope.
It reminds us that thoughtful science fiction needn't warn of darkness ahead.