“What is your purpose?”
Arrival is a sci-fi thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, and stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics lecturer who is called upon by the U.S. military to a strange, alien-looking spaceship in the Montana countryside, one of several similar ships to land in several distinct locations around the world. Nobody seems to know what these ‘aliens’ have landed on earth for, it is for this reason that U.S. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) has employed Amy Adams’ character to try and establish some form of contact using her expertise in languages.
Denis Villeneuve is best known for his last two films, Prisoners and Sicario, both critically acclaimed and nominated for best cinematography, with four Oscar nominations between them. His name in the industry is fast becoming one associated with films possessing breathtaking shots and fresh takes on unique premises, the former being a product of veteran director of photography Roger Deakins’ brilliant vision. Can Villeneuve deliver a third time?
You have to know two things before watching Arrival. One, it’s a movie involving aliens. And two, no, it doesn’t involve aliens completely decimating our planet, obliterating every famous landmark in the world’s biggest cities while our main protagonist dodges falling rubble and laser beams to save the day. Instead, Arrival is a slow thriller, which places a lot of faith in the cinema-goer, not serving up all pieces of the puzzle, but trusting the viewer to think about what he/she has just seen and discovering new things as we go along. There’s almost no action or violence involved, so if that’s what you were expecting, then you’ve been warned.
That said, Arrival is virtually a full package, with a thoroughly engrossing screenplay, master-class directing and a powerhouse lead performance by Amy Adams, who brings an incredible air of certainty yet fragility to her role, as we follow her through her fear, inspiration and courage. There is unlikely to be a better science fiction movie this year.
A Stunning, Cerebral Sci-Fi Experience
Without spoiling anything, the screenplay and direction are a phenomenal marriage of skill between Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisseiner. The pacing is slow, but appropriately so as it allows time to ponder and immerse oneself in the flow of the film, while marveling at cinematographer Bradford Young’s amazingly framed shots. A little trust in the film also goes a long way as it rewards you with a thoroughly enthralling third act that any lover of film and cinema would appreciate. It may sound blasphemous to some, but there was something incredibly Christopher Nolan-esque about the direction (I acknowledge that Nolan himself must’ve drawn inspiration from many greats before him), and one can only wonder if the future will look brighter come Villeneuve’s next film: Blade Runner 2049. Major credits should also go to the sound designer as well as veteran composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, as the sound effects and score excellently reflect the tone of each scene, whether it’s fear, tension, happiness, or the ever-complicated state of ‘happy-sad’.
Strong Lead Redeems Bland Support
For all its strengths, Arrival has few flaws but they are, unfortunately, still worth a mention. The film really is a supported and elevated by Amy Adam’s performance, which shadows that of all her co-stars. Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber is serviceable but ends up being quite an ancillary character, whose contribution to the film is minimal at best, and whose most memorable feature is his interesting accent. Jeremy Renner is also in this film as Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist also recruited by Weber, a scientist to Dr. Bank’s linguist. Though he is arguably the main male role in the film, he isn’t given very much to do, and like Col. Weber, also seems to be in this film just to be a big name in a very understandable marketing move. Both actors give solid performances, no doubt, but could easily have been played by lesser-known actors. There is also a certain ancillary character in this film who is a U.S. soldier. He was given a few scenes and lines to build some character, but in the end came off as completely uncharismatic, and ultimately served to move the story along with his decisions. Again, no spoilers, but anyone who has seen the film would know who I’m talking about
Arrival is, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the best-made films of 2016. It remains to be seen if it will have the momentum and buzz to carry it through to awards season, but expect nominations for best original score and cinematography, along will possible nods for best actress and best adapted screenplay. Best feature film is a possibility, but with Oscar juggernauts fast approaching in the form of La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, a nomination may be the best it can hope for. Though it has a few flaws, its achievements in filmmaking and storytelling far outweigh any negatives. Comparatively few films can hold a viewer’s attention with every frame, while making you think and question the meaning behind each frame. And that is the beauty of film that Arrival has so successfully realised.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
Nick Oon (author) from London on November 30, 2016:
Thanks for your comment Micah! Means a lot. If there's anything I can improve on, feel free to let me know. But yes, I feel this is a great film. If you appreciate filmmaking and storytelling, then I really recommend going to see it!
Micah from Central Florida on November 29, 2016:
This is a very well written review. I've been considering viewing this movie for awhile now. Thank you for your thoughts!