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Arrival – Review


Release Date: 11 November 2016 [USA]
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer [Screenplay] - Ted Chiang [Story]
Cast: Amy Adams - Jeremy Renner - Forest Whitaker



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Posted November 20, 2016 by

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Arrival Review:

It’s often said that there are no stories left to tell, only original ways to tell them, and while we’ve all seen countless alien invasion movies over the years, we’ve never seen anything like Dennis Villeneuve’s thoughtful, quietly shattering, sci-fi offering.

Amy Adams is Doctor Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who seems to be going through the motions after suffering a tragic loss. It’s testament to Adams’ nuanced performance that the opening few moments – a kind of sad prelude – were enough to bring tears to my eyes. We first learn of the arrival of twelve goliath, extra-terrestrial vessels, hovering over seemingly random points around the globe, in Banks’ almost empty lecture theatre, via a series of text messages and finally a TV report. While a state of emergency is declared, Banks floats numbly through the chaos and returns to her lakeside house to drink a glass of wine and watch the rolling news. Her curiosity is piqued by a visit from Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), a military man looking to recruit someone able to translate the aliens’ language. Through Weber, we learn that Doctor Banks still has high-level clearance from her previous experience working with the military, translating Farsi, and though her request to be taken to Montana to experience the aliens’ ‘speech’ firsthand is denied at first, it’s soon determined that she has the edge over her Ivy League peers.

With the camera’s gaze largely trained on Adams’ face in close-up, we can’t help but feel Banks’ trepidation and awe as she is literally airlifted into the middle of a first contact situation, and it’s through her eyes that we first glimpse the magnitude of the strange ship. On board the military chopper, she’s introduced to colleague, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an affable theoretical physicist and mathematician, and the two exchange playful jibes before being silenced by the sight of the alien monolith, shrouded in mist, and dwarfing the army camp surrounding it. With the whole world on the brink of panic, and heads of state poised to launch an attack, it’s down to Banks and Donnelly to determine what the mysterious visitors want, and fast.

arrival review

What follows is a tense, dream-like narrative which jumps between the stark, grey world of the Montana base and the interior of the alien craft – itself a space which defies Earth physics – and the warm, hazy memories which Banks finds increasingly harder to distinguish from the present as she becomes more sleep deprived and engrossed in the task of deciphering the aliens’ written communications. These take the form of intricate, circular symbols – a cross between coffee rings and Rorschach ink blots – written on the air in miniscule black particles emitted from the aliens’ bodies. I won’t describe the physical appearance of the creatures here, as the reveal is a rather haunting moment which benefits from the element of surprise, but suffice to say, they don’t look like any other movie E.T. to my recollection. They are both familiar and otherworldly, but this movie is less concerned with the biological details. The creatures are a symbol, a totem.

A cold grey wash, vistas masked with rolling mist, and a beautifully ominous soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson (largely comprised of low, mournful drones and heartbeats) make Arrival an edge-of-your-seat watch. As Donnelly and Banks get braver and more curious with each shadowy alien interaction, we are poised, waiting for the other shoe to drop, anxious to know if the visitors are friend or foe. Does the biggest threat to mankind come from beyond the stars, or from within?

Arrival cast

At its heart, this is a film about human beings, perception, and how we begin to navigate things too big and complex for our minds to process. By telling the tale in a non-linear way, Villeneuve mirrors the alien language Banks is trying to decipher, and allows us as viewers to understand what’s happening intuitively, so that when the whole truth is revealed, it’s not so much a shock twist as pieces of the puzzle slotting together. Banks’ victories are our victories. Arrival manages to balance the micro and the macro, the global and the domestic with a finesse and emotional impact rarely achieved in this genre. There’s enough of a ‘race against time’, world-saving denouement to keep sci-fi fans happy, but ultimately this is an intelligent, ponderous, personal film which poses some enormous existential questions. What happens when everything you thought you knew is blown apart in an instant? Is a fleeting love worth the pain of loss? How do you even start to understand something you have no frame of reference for? It’s basically the film Signs could have been if it hadn’t crapped out in the final act!

With measured, perfectly-pitched performances from a small cast, and Adams on heart-breaking form, Arrival is one of the most affecting, haunting movies I’ve seen this year, and maybe ever. In the wake of events in the US this week, it may also be one of the timeliest. In scary, uncertain times, people look to art for comfort, strength, and inspiration. If you’re feeling as fragile, shaken, and despondent as me right now, I urge you to go and see this gorgeous, soul-rending, hopeful, film and remember that you’re not alone. Just take plenty of tissues.


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Katie Young
Katie Young – Author
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One Comment


    Loved it.
    An intelligent take on alien contact for once.
    No need for huge CGI battle scenes to keep the masses from wriggling in their seats. It felt like a well thought out and executed idea. As usual, the military blunder in and ruin things which is just what I would expect IRL.
    Amy Adams is excellent and was perfect as both a scientific expert and terrified mom.

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