Arrival is the type of movie that Hollywood is no longer interested in making – or so goes the argument currently in vogue within certain cultural corners. When was the last time, some critics will cry, that the industry produced big-budget, star-driven films for adults, devoid of spandex-clad metaphors or young-adult franchise opportunities? Well, in reality, you could create an entire sub-genre around the postpopcorn release pattern: "Serious sci-fi" would include 2013's Gravity, 2014's Interstellar, and both 2015's The Martian and Ex-Machina – all marquee titles with little interest in pacifying their audiences or acting as mere brand extensions.
Yet even among this dignified group, Arrival is something special. A twisty, cerebral drama that just happens to involve aliens, Denis Villeneuve's film is a truly beguiling take on both the sci-fi canon and what, exactly, a grown-up Hollywood film is supposed to be. Like the aforementioned titles, Arrival plays with big stars (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker), big set-pieces (extraterrestrial motherships mysteriously arrive on Earth) and bigger ideas (the universe, time itself). But unlike its genre mates, Arrival resists the expectations of a mature audience. It is not merely an easy salve to the more juvenile blockbusters crowding the marketplace – it is something much more important, even if it's also occasionally confounding.
Just as Villeneuve's Sicario was a drug-war film that explored notions of moral accountability, and his Prisoners was a kidnapping thriller that toyed with themes of faith and damnation, the Quebec director's Arrival is a genre exercise with something much more profound on its mind. The basics of the story are familiar to The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still or a thousand other stories like it: One day, a dozen giant spaceships – each about 450 metres tall, and looking as if they were designed by surrealist H.R. Giger in a sunnier mood – land (or more accurately, hover) across the Earth. Naturally, the world's armed forces believe them to be a threat and the planet verges on chaos. But once a day, the ships open up to allow for visitors – and that's where the story takes its first turn.
Certain factions in the military believe the aliens to be friendly, or at the very least diplomatic, and recruit Louise Banks (Adams), a grief-stricken linguist, to develop a line of communication with the "heptapods." Along for the ride are theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner, doing a more personable Jeff Goldblum-in-Jurassic Park riff), a clear-headed but gruff colonel (Whitaker being his usual Whitaker self) and a CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) who might have a more sinister agenda in mind.
To detail much more would cheat the film of its narrative puzzle – calling it a mere "twist" would be to diminish its significant accomplishments – but it is easy to say that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (working from a short story by Ted Chiang) have created something that no one has ever quite seen.
At times pointedly sombre, and at other moments dizzyingly surreal, Arrival is shot with both a compassionate and calculating eye, something that's become Villenueve's stock in trade ever since his early days helming dark Québécois dramas (Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies). Yet, it's also the director's most confident work to date, one that finds him both in full control of complicated visuals (the heptapods and their ships are remarkably original in concept, yet not so inconceivable as to be truly "alien") and a powerhouse cast doing the best work of their careers (Adams deserves every award the industry offers).
But this is still a film destined to polarize audiences. After Arrival's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was all but impossible to avoid getting pulled into a heated debate over the story's finale. Standing in stark contrast to the didactic dénouements that popcorn sci-fi films are so fond of, Arrival forces its audience to confront the ideas that define humanity itself. While I found Villeneuve's methods enchanting, I can still see the narrative cracks that others couldn't fully embrace.
Yet no matter what side of the divide you fall on, there is no argument that Arrival lingers in your mind. And isn't that what adult moviegoers have been craving all along?