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Arrival review: Amy Adams conversing with aliens is one for the ages

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:37 IST

I'm just going to come right out and say it - the Amy Adams-starrer Arrival is one of the best movies of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve - of Sicario, Prisoners and Emmy fame - has taken the novella Story of Your Life (that the movie is based on), and adapted it masterfully for the big screen.

The premise of the movie is set when 12 enormous pod-shaped crafts land in different locations across the earth. These pods are akin to the monoliths in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. They come, they land (or nearly do) and then they do absolutely nothing.

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Adams, who plays Dr Louise Banks, a renowned professor of linguistics who lives alone with barely anything going on in her life, is tasked by the government with communicating with the aliens. Assisting Dr Banks on her quest to translate the alien gibberish is the playful military scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). The team is lead by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker).

Together, they have to try and decipher why the aliens have come to Earth and whether - to steal a cliché from the genre - they come in peace.

While the premise is radically sci-fi, Villeneuve takes the far out concept of aliens and treats it with as much detail as a thoroughly researched true story. The pre-contact panic that sets in - just before the news of the alien arrival gets out - is very effective.

At one point, Dr. Banks walks into a parking lot, eerily empty until someone backing out hits another car without thinking twice. This subdued panic makes the movie's over the top premise more convincing. The questions the citizens have mirror those of the audience - "What are the aliens doing on Earth?" and "Have they come in peace?"

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While almost the entire score has been composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, it's the song written by Max Richter, "On the Nature of Daylight" that plays over the beginning scenes that truly stands out. It's this sombre number, played during the concluding scene as well, that sets the tone for much of the movie. Fans of Stranger Than Fiction's 'breakdown scene' and Shutter Island.

This is a movie that is led by an emotionally strong - even if not her best - performance from Adams and is a sci-fi movie that won't feel alien to adults. Its sci-fi fear and tension provide a beautiful foil to the revelatory tale of love and loss that happens along side it.

One of the alien pods touching down on terra firma.

The aliens have landed...but with a difference

The threat of aliens is nothing new. From Independence Day to The Day The Earth Stood Still, the treatment of the alien invasion genre is simple - what will the aliens do. Arrival flips that narrative, putting the focus on humankind's reaction when faced with a possible, though by no means certain, threat.

From the personal to the national level, the movie unfolds, building on the paranoia of the various players involved, to create an atmosphere of heightened tension and suspense.

The aliens aren't the biggest threat to mankind, our own fear of what we do not understand is - a message that is extremely relevant in today's times.

Where do we go from here?

The film concerns itself with questions of memory, time and human choice and that's where it excels. It's a film that is both epic but intimate. It takes us deep into the language of the aliens but also brings us back to earth with flashbacks from Banks' life.

It's pacey, though interspersed with meaningful moments, while the cinematography portrays a constant sense of fear and soberness amongst the characters.

While Amy Adams shines, Jeremy Renner is largely underused.

This is undoubtedly Adam's movie from start to finish, but if you're counting on the film being carried only by the acting, then you've got the wrong idea. The film is nuanced and detailed and goes above and beyond what other science-fiction films have done. It has a revelation at the end that is both shocking and moving.

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If there's one thing missing in the film, it's that there is little humour to mitigate the serious, grey tone of the film. That's where Renner could have been used more effectively.

Still, with the year coming to an end and the awards buzz heating up, one can safely say that Arrival will be included in most people's 'best of 2016' lists.

First published: 24 November 2016, 5:52 IST