As of Tuesday, we live in very uncertain times. Could the world end tomorrow? Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s really really unlikely, but unlikely and impossible are two different things.
I bring this up because I think it’s important that the apocalypse/revolution hold off until the weekend is over, because you really need to see Arrival. It may be the best movie I’ve seen all year. Let me amend that. It’s definitely the best movie I’ve seen this year. It may be the best movie I’ve seen in the last two years.
Good sci-fi is always hard to pull off. A director is asking the audience to use both the right and left sides of its collective brain simultaneously. That means you don’t have to give a big payoff. You essentially have to give two of them.
It’s become even harder to make a great sci-fi film in the last 10 years now that we’re told superhero movies count as sci-fi. They don’t. That’s fantasy. My point is, when the moniker of sci-fi is placed on a movie that isn’t meant to make you think at all, placing that same label on a movie like "Arrival" is unfair. This is meant for adults…maybe like a really smart kind, like the babies from Baby Geniuses I & II, which was also great sci-fi.
"Arrival" is the story of the day 12 alien ships arrive on Earth. They are spread out in seemingly random locations across the globe. Governments all over the world assemble their best military and scientific minds to make contact.
For the U.S., that team includes Dr. Louise Banks, a language expert (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Col. Weber (Forest Whittaker), among others. They are working at a landing site in Montana. The movie opens, though, with a look at Louise’s personal life. She has just watched her teenage daughter die of cancer. There is a voice over that indicates everything that happens next is a flash back.
Banks and Donnelly use vocabulary and language mapping exercises to communicate with the squid-like aliens they call Heptapods. Most of the movie’s drama centers around the need to crack the code of what the Heptapods are saying before other governments give up and are ready to treat the aliens as hostile invaders.
During these exercises, some of the men under Col. Weber’s command start to doubt their mission. They listen to the words of Arrival’s spoof of radio host/internet lunatic Alex Jones, who shouts about the alien/human conspiracy. So they plant a bomb in the alien ship, and that’s where I have to stop recapping, because literally everything from that point is a major spoiler.
This is why I hate liking movies. It’s really hard to write a funny piece about a movie I liked so very much. Insult comedy is easy. It’s easy.
Hell, we just learned it’s a great presidential platform!
Anyway, director Denis Villeneuve continues to create great sci-fi. If you haven’t seen his 2013 movie "Enemy," you really should. That, like "Arrival," is a real head trip until, suddenly, one plot point clicks into place and it all comes together.
Look, I know that a lot of us are scared of what the next four years will bring. Are those fears grounded in reality? I’m sure most of them are. At least a few of them probably aren’t. Whichever the case is for your fears, the point is that we all need a distraction this weekend.
If you want pure fluff, you’re going to go see "Doctor Strange," but I am telling you that a visual spectacular that also engages your mind is so much better.
I don’t know how "Arrival" will hold up as other prestige/Oscar fare gets released. All I can say definitively right now that it is the best movie I’ve seen in 2016 so far.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.