Movie Review: Arrival

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A linguist is employed to communicate with aliens who arrive suddenly on Earth.

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Denis Villeneuve, 2016

Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads a quiet, repetitive life; so much so that when aliens arrive on Earth for the first time, she barely adjusts her daily routine, even when the people around her start to panic. However, when Louise’s language skills are called on to communicate with Earth’s new visitors, she is drawn into a world entirely unlike anything she’s known before. Louise works together with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure crack the code of the alien language, all under the watchful eye of Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) and the military. Louise’s struggles to establish understanding come under pressure when time and international relations begin to work against her; she also experiences emotional upheaval when working with the aliens triggers visions of her dead daughter.

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This is going to be a very tough review to write without spoilers. Arrival is exactly the kind of smart, ideas-centric scifi that’s relatively rare but also a delight to get to experience. The kind of storytelling going on in Arrival is smart and sophisticated, and it’s a real pleasure for any scifi fans. Having said that, and to get this out of the way early, I really don’t like the aesthetic that this film decided to go with. Floaty handheld naturally lit movies with VWOOM soundtracks that drown out the dialogue are all the rage right now and almost every aspect of it drives me up the wall. It’s not even that it’s bad – everyone is doing good work here – it’s just that I don’t like it. There are some gorgeous shots in here, don’t get me wrong, but I would frequently become frustrated by my inability to hear important dialogue or see what the hell was going on. In a film this conceptually complex, dense with information, it would be really helpful to have a clearer sense of a lot of the key moments. Plot-wise, the storytelling is really tight with the minor caveat that preserving the surprise the film’s twist means that some characters and plotlines get short-changed in terms of how much can be done with them.

That twist is so good, though, and it’s good not because it’s unpredictable (savvy filmgoers will figure it out before the reveal) but because it is not only clever, it is thematically and narratively important. It enhances the characters, it moves the plot forwards, and it doesn’t talk down to the audience. Arrival is such a very character-driven piece, focusing tightly on Amy Adams’ showstopping performance. She’s so very, very good in this film, and it’s so refreshing to see a role like this – totally non-sexualised, work-focused, with skills and abilities that will save the world rather than some chosen one storyline. Jeremy Renner is in full support mode in the “girlfriend role”, never stealing focus. This movie feels so real and yet so hopeful; the way that the world deals with unexpected visitors feels realistically complex (though one can’t help feeling like things might go differently with Donald Trump in the hot seat). The very slow, keen build of tension works perfectly – it’s a while before we get a shot of the spaceship but when it’s finally revealed in all its glory it’s done so in spectacular fashion. The pieces of the puzzle are laid out carefully but never too conveniently, even if sometimes the fascinating story of watching Louise work out the linguistics takes a backseat to emotional manipulation. The struggles Louise goes through are real and relateable, which is effective. Arrival is strong original scifi, and everyone should go see it.

Arrival on IMDb

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