It’s The ‘Arrival’ Of An Interesting Alien Mystery (Movie Review)

arrival thumbImagine how the world reacts to multiple spacecraft entering our atmosphere without any warning. Now take away the immediate imagery that has come from years of seeing various blockbusters use this as a way to provide explosive spectacle. Arrival has little interest in adding action-based excitement to its story about how an elite team works to uncover an extraterrestrial mystery. Instead, director Denis Villeneuve follows up his terrific crime thriller, Sicario, with a strong science fiction film that allows smart people to do their job and be genuinely affecting at the same time. The film succeeds at being smart as a whole for both what it attempts to accomplish and how meaningful it could end up being.


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The film is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, which in turn has been adapted by Eric Heisserer. It features Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who has been recruited, along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to investigate one of the twelve alien ships to arrive and touch down on the planet. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is leading this team, as it requires a deft hand to deal with something so unknown and appearing to pose no threat. Of course, it is more the attitudes of the various countries all dealing the same issue that is driving up the levels of tension. This can hopefully be resolved by what Banks and Donnelly (among the other scientists in the various locations) can learn from all of this.

There are specifics to how Arrival sets itself up and what rules the film plays by. One of the best touches is to keep the focus on Adams’ Dr. Banks. If an audience member were to go in truly blind, they would be learning everything at the same moment she does. No alien craft is truly seen until she arrives in the Montana location where the U.S. ship is located. There is no understanding of what happens with these ships until Banks and Donnelly are allowed to step inside them (a door opens every 18 hours). This approach plays well to the film, even as the story carefully weaves together a narrative thread seemingly separate from what is going on.

That lingering portion of the film is important for a number of reasons, but the main one is how it makes sure that we know Adams is the central character here. She may be an audience surrogate, but she is also the one to instigate various methods to help her team and the world figure out why these aliens have arrived. Her key to this is language and how to build a communication bridge between humans and whatever it is that has arrived here on earth. Given that we learn early on just enough about who Banks is, it seems as if we have proper motivation to stand behind her, even if it is already a given that we’d want to know more about how everything will play out.

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Fortunately, the film has some intriguing ways of making sure things come together properly. This largely stems from the film’s best scenes, which feature Adams explaining what is important about language and discovering how the alien language is unique and incredible. It is indeed incredible and one can only imagine the lengths the filmmakers went to in researching how to create an alien language that feels like something that is both understandable and (fittingly) alien.

Keeping the notion of aliens in mind, while I mentioned the film largely takes place in Montana, at the site of the spacecraft, cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Johann Johannsson do plenty of great work to develop an atmosphere that feels practically otherworldly. Yes, the visual effects utilized are convincing in the right sort of way, but the story has a minimalist style that capitalizes off of what Villenueve’s team brings to it. As a result, while the film’s story is essentially engaging with a worldwide event, there is a central focus that makes the film seem somewhat claustrophobic in its construction.

That is an interesting thing to balance, as the film does pay off itself by having such a restriction, but could also feel smaller just by the nature of keeping a fairly simple and straightforward balance. You have the few major human characters, which also includes Michael Stuhlbarg as a government official inclined to disagree with people, but sound smart doing it. Then you have the aliens, which really do seem like something from another planet. There is also Dr. Banks’ mind, which the film finds a way to explore as the story progresses. This all helps to make the film feel more personal (and explains the modest budget, which likely meant less studio interference), but it does come somewhat at a cost of get a grander scope of where things eventually stand.

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One has to speak carefully, considering the reveals (not twists) in this film, as some of what there is to recommend comes from the ways in which one can think about the film’s conclusion and eventual understandings. There is some writing that takes away some of the eventual impact, but I am far more pleased by how rewarding of an experience it feels like Arrival provides, given the many smart choices present. There are some narrative contrivances to push things a certain direction, but it is worth it, given the eventual discussions to be had about the possibilities a world created by Arrival opens up.

Arrival is a strong film that provides good work for Renner, Whitaker and particularly Adams. It is well-crafted and smart about what sort of approach to make in an effort to show us something that feels like a fresh take on an alien invasion. Just saying alien invasion feels wrong and that’s part of what is great about this movie. There’s also the whole look and feel, which further allows for praise when it comes to seeing what a great visionary Villeneuve seems to be. With films such as Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario and now this on his resume, the man is one to watch and reason enough to have faith in his upcoming Blade Runner sequel. In the meantime, Arrival has landed and it made a very good impression.

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