Prisoners in 2013 and Sicario in 2015. Each were among the most powerful and riveting movies of their respective years, and director Denis Villeneuve was the man behind them both. So it’s no wonder his latest is just as phenomenal.

Arrival, based on the novella by Ted Chiang, is a cerebral, thought-provoking achievement and nothing short of a masterpiece. What may seem on the surface to be just another sci-fi flick about alien invaders is really everything but. It’s a film about language and loss. And communication and conflict. It’s everythingIndependence Day wasn’t. It takes the best parts of E.T. and fuses them with the highlights of Contact and still feels wholly original.

Amy Adams is Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who, due to previous work she did for the Army, has top-secret clearance that comes in handy after a dozen massive alien pods arrive around the world (the closest to us is in Montana). Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) needs someone to help figure out a way to communicate with the visitors, and Banks is just the person.

Teaming up with physicist Ian Donnelly (a perfectly-cast Jeremy Renner), she first has to wrap her head around what’s happening (alien invasion and all) and then take the aliens’ hums and whirs and clunks and figure out how to make sense of them. And then communicate back.

Arrival, though, is much, much deeper than that. Banks is having constant visions of her recent divorce and the loss of her daughter to a rare terminal disease, given to us in snippets throughout. It’s all part of the complex and heady script adaptation by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out)─a slow burn that ramps up and up until the concluding, gut-punch finale.

Villeneuve’s direction is as poetic and stimulating as his previous work (if not more so), and he continues to get high-watermark performances from his actors. Adams joins Prisoners’ Jake Gyllenhall and Sicario’s Emily Blunt in giving performances so completely nuanced and heart-wrenching that you might just forget you’ve ever seen these actors in anything before. Yes Adams has already earned five Oscar nominations, but years from now people will point to this performance as the one that defined her career.

Strengthened even further by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s haunting score and Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography, Arrival is not only one of this year’s truly great movies, it’s easily among the finest sci-fi films ever made.


5/5 stars