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Arrival (2016)
14 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

An incredible and majestic experience that is as abstract as it is emotional. Movies don't get more original, unpredictable, or ambitious than this. Denis Villeneuve orchestrates all the visual and sonic elements of cinema to captivate and transport audiences in a way few directors can. Arrival is likely to go down as my favorite movie of the year and as one of the best sci-fi movies ever.

The wonder and awe of extraterrestrial life is extremely fascinating on screen when done right. Spielberg has certainly achieved it with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Denis Villeneuve is right on par with this film. It isn't one big crescendo like that film is, instead revealing the aliens towards the beginning, and building concept and story after. Arrival starts off as an awe inspiring experience and only goes up from there. The director's last film Sicario kept topping itself off, scene after scene, even when you think the last one can't be beat, and Arrival does the same, but on an even larger scale.

One scene involves the characters entering the ship, where they travel up a lift and into a vertical cave with a white wall at the end that the aliens are behind. This scene is way longer than it could be, but it's done with such intensity and suspense to really make you feel like you're traveling with the characters into unknown territory, and it's beautiful.

The atmosphere is so powerful from scene to scene, from the fog stretching over the mountains in the Montana location to the interior of the spacecraft. Johann Johannson's score is other-worldly, unsettling, creative, and majestic, adds a lot to the atmosphere without ever feeling intrusive. It often resembles the low moans of the aliens and the dark abyss of space.

Amy Adams's character carries a lot of the emotional weight of the film without going for tears or obvious emotion. For how abstract and philosophical the film can get, it miraculously keeps itself grounded in reality and in humanity in a way most audiences should be able to connect to. It achieves exactly what Interstellar wished it did, and captures the same epic-ness of that film while mostly taking place within a square mile. There is political subtext about fear of foreign life that could easily be applied to the immigration and refugee conversations we're having today, about language and perspective, but even greater is the multidimensional lesson about our human condition. I would elaborate, but I certainly don't want to spoil anything.

This film unfolds in such a surprising way, it's among the most unpredictable and surprising movies I've seen, and the trailers certainly show very little. It reaches out so far and comes back with so much, managing to ground what it grabs in humanity. It's also surprising on a surface level, with twists that may shock you, but not in a way that draws attention to itself being a twist. The story takes you on a roller coaster and gives you absolutely everything you could ask for within its runtime, which is a concise two hours.

Arrival has been getting a good share of critical praise, but I still feel like it's underwhelming compared to the experience I had. In every way, Arrival is the best of what cinema has to offer, and it's difficult to think of a film so simultaneously ambitious, thrilling, and emotional since Gravity. It gives you cinematic cake to eat up while you're watching, and afterwards gives you a lot to think about and discuss. One of the best of this decade so far.