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Review: ‘Arrival’ deserving of Academy recognition

To date, no science fiction films have ever collected the top prize of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With any luck, that might just change this year thanks to Arrival, a heady and stunning slice of hard sci-fi that strokes just about every cinematic bone in the body.

Five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams is almost sure to earn another nomination for her work in this film as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. military when 12 alien vessels land at random points around the planet. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, played with enthusiasm by Jeremy Renner, Banks works solve the language conundrums that come from communicating with a species that does not play by the language rules of human beings. Meanwhile, the international community struggles to deal with this alien arrival in an intriguing parallel of our modern world.

The less said about the plot of Arrival, the better. This is the type of movie that is best seen with as little information as possible to enjoy the innumerable thrills it has to offer.

What can be said is that is directed with aplomb by Denis Villeneuve, the acclaimed filmmaker behind 2015’s drug cartel feature Sicario, 2013’s kidnap/torture thriller Prisoners and 2014’s heady Enemy. The last of these films, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, is perhaps the best precursor to what makes Arrival such a powerful film that only could have been helmed by Villeneuve. The French-Canadian is currently working on Blade Runner 2049, a sequel which had previously instilled a lot anxiety in moviegoers. With his work here, Villeneuve should make that anxiety wash away.

Arrival is based upon “Story Of Your Life,” an award-winning short story by Ted Chiang. The film stays remarkably true to its source material, but when it does waver, it is not without cause. For instance, in the short story, Banks and Donnelly communicate with the aliens through two-way video receivers. In Arrival, they actually board the parked spacecraft. In the film, these boardings make for some the film’s most thrilling moments.

The film also does a remarkable job of constructing the visual language of the aliens, which are referred to as “heptapods.” Again, without divulging too many details, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer collaborated to create the language Chiang described within his story. The striking and compelling imagery used for the language is a big part of how these filmmakers made linguistics a thrilling plot device.

Adams is able to sell much of the film, as she works her way through a complex set of emotions that require a huge range. In less capable hands, some of the film’s more emotional moments might come off as a bit cheesy, as they sometimes do when Renner takes center stage. But none of the cheesiness does anything to take away from the power of this motion picture.

While there is about a month left of movies to come during this Oscar season, it is hard for me to imagine that many can compete with the intelligence, poignancy and beauty of Arrival. Expect nominations for Adams, Villeneuve, Heisserer, the visual effects team, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, cinematographer Bradford Young, editor Joe Walker and for the motion picture as a whole. While the movie will face several strong competitors, it might finally be the time for the Academy to take the plunge on science fiction.

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