ArrivalArrival is the finest first contact film since District 9 and takes its place alongside that work and Spielberg’s standard setter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as one of the best tales of the initial meeting between humans and extraterrestrials ever told on film. (Note: Comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey are unfair; Kubrick’s masterpiece occupies a unique and special place.) Arrival earns this distinction by way of its thoroughly original take on the alien life forms that come to Earth in 12 huge elliptical ships that hover off the ground in an inexplicable set of locations that include Russia, China, Australia, and Sudan. The aliens in Arrival not only sport an unexpected look, but their manner of communication is something we have not seen in a mainstream movie before.

And communication is a central theme of the movie. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a college professor of linguistics, who is selected by the U.S. military to facilitate understanding in the face off between species. Some of Arrival‘s best moments are similar to what The Martian showed us: scientists figuring out things can be sexy and cinematic. Amy is the female coefficient for this equation, the male mind candy is provided by Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, theoretical physicist and second banana to Dr. Banks. Renner is fine here (“fine” to be said as a four syllable word with a question mark at the end), but given his implied role in the greater scheme of the the universe (not to mention the plot), one could rightfully expect a more memorable presence. The other above-the-title talent is Forest Whitaker, who is as excellent as we expect him to be, playing Colonel Weber, the military liaison for Banks and Donnelly.

Adams, however, is the unmistakeable heart of the movie. She is tormented by the memories of a failed marriage and a daughter who died too young from a terminal illness. How she finds inspiration from this pain and what she learns about herself in the course of her encounters with the aliens sparks a sense of wonder equal to that provided by visitors from outer space. Adams has been nominated five times for Academy Awards. This year, will likely mark her sixth nomination. The question is whether it will be for Arrival or Nocturnal Animals. Given that this film would not work without her, Arrival appears to be the vehicle for her best chance at an Oscar this time around.

The movie needs all the good will it generates through its fine cast, original ideas, and wonderful special effects because it nearly squanders everything by resorting to tired cliches and all-too-familiar bad guys. The scientists face an artificial deadline for a breakthrough because of China, Russia, and the CIA. We should probably be thankful they couldn’t figure out a way to get Nazis into the story. That would have completed the starter set of stereotypical villains on display. Simply put, falling back on this crutch is lazy, uninspired writing. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay is otherwise solid, but relying on such a banal device to propel the action is a major flaw.

Meanwhile, director Denis Villeneuve continues to occupy a unique position among the major filmmakers. He had demonstrated repeatedly the rather rare ability among his peers to produce mainstream films that are entertaining and intelligent. He can go big (Arrival and Sicario) or he can go small (Enemy and Incendies), and the consistent result is enjoyable excellence. Villeneuve might even be able to save the DC cinematic universe given the opportunity. After all, in Arrival, he saves our little part of the galaxy.

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