Here are 11 reasons why Arrival, the astonishing sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is currently the best film of 2016:
1) It’s as emotionally intriguing, immediately from the beginning, as any film since Pixar’s Up (2009). Pixar might never be topped for its ability to move an audience to tears within the first five minutes of a film, but this opening sequence comes close.
2) The visual design of the alien space ship and the aliens themselves are both original and complex.
3) This is an alien movie. Didn’t you know? But it’s unlike any alien movie you’ve ever seen.
4) The opening scene of the spacecraft — a matte-black vertical looking like a mancala stone or a bun of sandwich, one of 12 that has landed for unstated purposes on earth — gigantic and mysterious, as the Montana fog flows through the hills and the encircling military encampment, is one of the most arresting moments of the year.
5) The plot is a welcome departure from the alien action movie’s traditional impulse to pit earthling protagonists against aliens. Arrival’s intentions are much more specific, as well as much more righteous: They involve making out for what it really is the aliens aim. Are they scientists or are they tourists? There’s no real violence in Arrival film; instead, and more powerfully, there is its constant threat.
6) At large, Arrival film is a strong (but not preachy) argument for the limits of military power. The American soldiers, led by a stumped Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), can’t make headway in their diplomatic efforts, and so they recruit Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, (played by the brilliant Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly, a physicist, (Jeremy Renner steps in) to the landing site to try to make conversations with the seven-legged creatures. Weber’s impatience in one or two scenes, in the face of Dr. Banks’ reasoned approach, is the only element in the script that doesn’t quite scan as realistic.
7) Even involving much less action, Arrival is the most astounding movie in 2016 alongside Green Room. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) have crafted one eerie-ass space ship. The mancala stone’s interior where the diplomacy takes place is not your typical science-fiction space ship.
In fact it’s more like a coal mine, with head-spinning laws of gravity and a clear wall, beyond which the two aliens (code named Abbott and Costello) are prevailed upon to communicate with the humans. The lengthy opening scene where finds Banks and Donnelly first board the ship is filled with all the curiosity and terror that you’d expect when encountering an extraterrestrial species. Adams, who’s phenomenal, pants and nearly passes out in her hazmat suit. Nudged by a dramatic score, you share her wonderment and her terror.
8) Arrival film is not afraid of dealing with the troublesome work of trying to decode the strange written alien language. It gets somewhat technical, but wisely includes a brief voiceover interlude to make sure you’re up to speed. The detail makes you feel like an enlightened audience member.
This seems like a smart script, very much like a smart film; much smarter, at any level, than the bland and bestial conquest-antagonisms that stereotype the human-alien relationships in taint-tightening floating debris like Independence Day: Resurgence. In addition, the wearisome process of learning the alien language makes the payoff that much more major — ultimately, Banks wants to be able to ask the extraterrestrial creatures “What is your purpose here?” And it’s thrilling not knowing how they will answer him back.
9) To be clear: Not knowing whether the aliens are good or bad makes for good, tense, gripping cinema, especially when so much hangs in the balance. Isn’t this obvious?
10) The third-act developments are perhaps closer to the city limits of Crazytown than some viewers might appreciate, but they are conveyed clearly and elegantly, and rewards repeat viewings (speaking from experience). The final thirty minutes gather all the physical and emotional highlights — global forces prepare to launch military strikes on the spacecrafts while Louise Banks gets to grips with crucial information she’s been provided about humanity, and learns her core role in the conflict.
11) You may anticipate the final revelations, but they are nonetheless portrayed with beauty and power. It’s an emotionally rocking finale, and Amy Adams delivers the magnificent knockout punch. Her courage is transferable. It speaks to hope and bravery in the face of tragedy.