Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It’s a name on the tongue of every sci-fi geek, an epochal, genre-defining title that represents some of the best that science fiction has to offer. It’s by far in the top tier of Steven Spielberg’s filmography, one of the films — alongside Star Wars — that legitimized the then-derided genre, and has had lingering impact on popular culture. It was a film that prioritized intelligence and heart over spectacle; it’s a film that refused to let special effects compromise its unhurried pace or emphasis on character. It feels all the more, ahem, alien nowadays, contrasted with the bang-boom spectacle of big budget science fiction in the post-Independence Day/Roland Emmerich era, an era where even relatively smart and mature films like Gravity and The Martian can’t fully avoid at least one scene where something blows up.
It’s no small thing, then, to place the claim that Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s sublime new alien visitation tale, is this era’s Close Encounters. It’s a rapturously smart and involving tale of aliens, octopoid things that look like Cthulhu portraying an Ent, who appear on Earth in giant, egg-shaped pods and then..just hover there. Doing nothing. What is it that they want? That’s the question every nation in the world wants to figure out. In the US, that means bringing in the military to escort a couple of eggheads to crack the alien’s “language”, which displays in inky black circular rings. There’s Ian, an affable theoretical physicist played with a wry quietness by Jeremy Renner, and, more importantly, Louise (Amy Adams), a sad-eyed linguist who we see, in flashback, nursing memories of a tragic past.
It’s not exactly fair to describe Arrival as Spielbergian; Villeneuve is too clinical, too precise, too unsentimental for that. In films like Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, Villeneuve directs with a chilly forensic detail, but it’s that procedural element that makes Arrival so gripping. This is the rare big budget movie that’s about ideas, and in this case, those ideas are perversely uncinematic: Arrival is a movie about aliens that’s really about language, about it flows, how it forms and how we use it (or misuse it.) The main thesis of the film is that it’s really about how we must learn to communicate with each other, and if that sounds like it would make for a pretty dry movie — oh look, a movie that’s here to teach us how to talk — the miracle of Arrival is just how beautiful, how rapturous it actually is. Villeneuve may not exactly channel his inner Spielberg, but he does invoke the same awe, the same wonder. There are breathtaking images, as when Louise, Ian and a crew of military types led by Forest Whitaker, first enter the alien “pod” and discover that gravity — indeed space — does not work like they are used to. (There’s a trippy M.C. Escher-like shot of the group walking on what they believe is the floor — only for us to see it’s the ceiling.)
As Louise begins to translate the alien language, Villeneuve flashes back to her past life, and he shuffles the deck throughout, building to a climax of surprising emotional power. Cinematographer Bradford Young shoots the film in various shades of muted grey, with the occasional moment of Malickian nature-porn gauziness, and it actually has the effect of highlighting the movie’s most surprising element: the stunningly warm-blooded heart beating it’s shiny hull. Arrival has the kind of finale that, done wrong, could play like syrupy Interstellar soup, but under Villeneuve’s pared-down style, with its emphasis on scientific detail, it actually earns it — it’s a movie that manages to rend the heart with overdosing on sentimental drivel. Part of that is thanks to Adams, who, after getting stuck in a more thankless role in the sci-fi fantasy dud Batman v Superman gives a performance of incredible richness and control. There are no cities being destroyed in Arrival, no landmarks being reduced to rubble, no orgiastic displays of explosive firepower. There are moments when Arrival does threaten to turn into a full on action fest — the threat of another nation launching an offensive is always on the horizon– but Villeneuve is smart to pull back and tease, never launching into full-scale pageantry. Instead, Arrival does something better — it conjures a genuine sense of grandeur. It’s possibly the best film this year.