Arrival Review

Posted: November 17, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

arrivalWritten by Daniel Simpson

Denis Villeneuve has come forth as one of the most promising directors of the current decade. As a fan of his breakthrough Incendies I’ve been largely excited by this, but I’ve also been a little disappointed by the films he’s made since. Make no mistake, movies like Prisoners and Sicario both show some fine directorial craft, but I found both were also marred by some questionable screenplays. I’m not going to go into detail about why here, but I found both had something of an identity crisis wherein they presented themselves as dignified prestige pictures, but their scripts were hokey. Still, I remain enthusiastic about Villeneuve’s work and have been hoping he’d be able to make something special. His newest film, Arrival, seemed like exactly the sort of hard science-fiction that would win me over.

The film is set on what looks like a modern day Earth when twelve mysterious alien vessels touch down on the planet. Seeking a means to communicate with the aliens, the U.S. government enlists linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to make contact. Louise is brought to Montana, where one of the alien vessels resides, and meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who is to work with Louise inside the alien ship during sessions. Slowly but surely, Louise does start to make progress understanding the aliens, and vice versa. However global tensions mount as Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) increasingly moves to a military solution and the threat of warfare grows.

We’ve seen a surge of big-budget science-fiction lately and what’s especially refreshing is that many of these films are actually quite thoughtful. That said, sometimes spectacle is too tempting to avoid and a film diverges from its ideas for action. This is probably most evident in District 9, a science-fiction film that sold itself as being about communication species and the political consequences of it, but ended as a violent action movie. I was worried that Arrival might follow a similar path, exploring ideas of communication before turning into a more Hollywood movie, but thankfully that isn’t the case. Arrival remains thematic and interested in exploring ideas from beginning to end, even if what those ideas are do shift.

The film spends a lot of time observing the slow process of communication between species and there are all sorts of details that make this process engaging. The aliens, for example, communicate through signs and visuals rather than strictly through audio. Additionally, the aliens and the humans are separated by a transparent surface, with the aliens shrouded in fog and seldom seen. These are just some of the details that make these scenes interesting, and there are all sorts of other little things to be enjoyed in these sections. Additionally, Villeneuve and Eric Heisserer (who wrote the screenplay) are very patient involving the progression of communication. The first few scenes between the humans and the aliens are fairly simple and the progress made is only minimal. This is actually a lot more gripping than a more fast-paced approach. It builds anticipation and when breakthroughs are made they feel earned.

Arrival is not just interested in communication with an alien species, but also communication with our own. The tension between various nations regarding how to deal with the alien presence and the subsequent breakdown in communication channels all speak to the ways in which humans react with each other and the problems which underline our interactions. However, in the third act, the film stops being about this and becomes about…something else. I can’t really go into detail about where the film goes in the third act, but suffice it to say more is revealed about why the aliens have arrived and that turns much of the film on its head. These turns are integrated into the film well and they do lead to some enticing ideas, but it also largely drops the film’s themes of communication breakdowns. In fact the twist ends up resolving the central conflict in a way that feels rather like a cheat. Overall, it’s a twist I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it is a surprising turn, one that does change your perception of events and also opens up some other neat ways of thinking. On the other hand, I feel like the film sets up some interesting questions about communication but that it doesn’t follow through with.

While Villeneuve’s last few films were made especially noteworthy by Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Arrival shot instead by Bradford Young. Young’s work is not nearly as showy as Deakins and I doubt he’ll get much awards attention, but the film looks good and there is some memorable imagery. I was particularly impressed by the way the film would focus on Louise while distorting the environment around her, reflecting the character becoming swallowed in her work. The designs of the aliens are quite strong and the meetings between species’ have a lot of atmosphere. Finally, the film has a very strong cast of great character actors who all do solid work. I’ve long been a champion of Amy Adams and she does indeed make for a compelling screen presence. The character as written is not terribly complex, but Adams imbues the role with a certain depth. I also really liked Michael Stuhlbarg, who has a small role, but does a good job riding the line between being an official who obeys protocol but does not slip into being a simplistic villain.

Overall, Arrival is a quality film and I’d also argue it’s easily Denis Villeneuve’s best English-language film. It’s a well-crafted work with a solid cast, some really effective scenes, and is actually interested in exploring some important social and science-fiction comments. Granted, I don’t think it does so perfectly. While the big twist is effective, it also does solve the film’s central issues and themes in an anti-climactic fashion. This isn’t immediately apparent when watching, but on reflection it’s clear the exploration of tensions in communication aren’t really resolved fully. Still, I only harp on this so much because of the many other ways in which Arrival is great. This is some damn fine filmmaking that remains cerebral while also still being pretty accessible.

A-

Comments
  1. le0pard13 says:

    Easily, one of my favorites of the year.

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