Arrival (2016)

Admittedly, I’m not as familiar with director Denis Villeneuve’s filmography as I probably should be. Just on the merit of both of us being Canadian, I think his work deserves more attention from me. I’ve heard nothing but solid reviews for his 2013 one-two punch combo of ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Enemy’, both of which I fully intend to see and review, and the one title I have seen (and reviewed) was the excellent ‘Sicario’ (2015); a film that has impressed me in different ways each of the 3 times I’ve seen it. I heard that Ridley Scott handed the reins for the questionable ‘Blade Runner’ sequel to Villeneuve, and that got me curious. Not long after that announcement, I heard that he had another film that was on it’s way, and that film was ‘Arrival’. At a glance, the average movie-goer could be fooled into thinking that this was just another vacuous, big-budget ‘alien invasion’ popcorn flick, a la ‘Independence Day’, but having just seen it…this is definitely more ‘Contact’ than ‘ID4’.
The film opens with a somber introduction to linguistics professor ‘Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams), who seems to be working through a past trauma involving a lost child. One day, her class is interrupted by the announcement that 12 unidentified craft have appeared in specific locations around the world. Not long after, and due to a previous Top Secret research project for the military, a ‘Colonel Weber’ (Forest Whitaker) arrives to recruit her into the team of scientists and soldiers who are camped near one of the tall, motionless ships in a large, open prairie. Once on site, she also meets ‘Ian Donnelly’ (Jeremy Renner), an awe-struck astrophysicist as dedicated to his craft as she is to hers. Together, the two of them begin working on the problem of establishing peaceful contact with the monstrous, tentacled creatures on board the ship, while news reports from around the planet show escalating tensions and threats of impending military action, particularly from China. Their mission then becomes a race against time as the tensions and threats of violence escalate.
Right off the bat, I have to be honest and say that this film is definitely NOT the fastest moving movie out there. It most certainly takes it’s time as the 1 hour and 56 minute story unravels. In many respects, this is a positive, but there were a couple sequences, largely in the 2nd Act, that could’ve used an adrenaline boost, as I caught my eyelids drifting downward against my will. If you’re looking for crazy alien invasion action, with lasers and explosions and scores of humans and creatures butchering each other in droves…this is NOT the movie for you. If you’re patient enough and smart enough to allow the characters and the interesting scientific concepts being used to take you through the narrative, you’ll probably get something out of this.
The cast is solid. Amy Adams (‘Man of Steel’) does a good job of coming off like the intelligent professor that she’s supposed to be, while also giving hints of added ‘dimension’ to her character, especially when a specific ‘twist’ is revealed. I’ve always been a fan of Jeremy Renner (‘The Avengers’) and I liked his character here…even though I didn’t quite buy into a certain romantic subplot. Forest Whitaker (‘Panic Room’) did a good job of playing a ‘human’ military officer in a way that didn’t succumb to cheap stereotypes. The rest of the supporting cast did what needed to be done to get the story to where it needed to go.
One of the things I noticed (and loved) when I watched Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ was his almost David Fincheresque manner of shot composition and editing; very patient, disciplined framing with good use of somber colors. This film has some gorgeously simple shots that really give a nice sense of wonder and scale. While I think that a sequel to 1982’s flawed but classic ‘Blade Runner’ is unneeded, I’m now even more curious to see what that one will end up looking like, under his direction, even if the script ends up a mess (which I pray it doesn’t).
The film’s Score was a bit of a mixed bag for me. On one hand, there was a lot of really cool, ominous-sounding score that nicely punctuated the uneasiness of the situation, while on the other hand, some of the plaintive violin music had me thinking of pretentious Canadian art-house cinema. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it just had a certain ‘feel’ that has always slightly annoyed me. Luckily, when the music was good…it was REALLY good! Same could also be said for the overall Sound Design too. The true stand-outs were the sounds developed for ‘Abbot and Costello’, the improvised names given to the two alien beings in the ship. They reminded my girlfriend and I of the radar-like clicking and honking that the MUTO’s in 2014’s ‘Godzilla’ made. Military vehicles, especially helicopters and jet fighters, sounded sweet too, with a lot of effective ‘low end’.
If I have to complain, the main ones would again revolve around the slower pace and the handling of the ‘twist’ in the 3rd Act. The film does tend to drag a little and, as a result, feels bogged down at times, not too unlike Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ (2014). The ‘twist’, while definitely interesting, could’ve been communicated a bit clearer in how it worked and why it happened to who it happened to. These are the main two problems I had with ‘Arrival’.
All in all, this flick is a good, but not fantastic, example of ‘smart sci-fi’. Having never read the book this is based on, I can say that the film doesn’t treat it’s audience like idiots and presents some very interesting and logical ideas, particularly in how it points out how we take ‘language’ for granted and that it’s workings are more complex than we actively think about, especially in the context of trying to figure out the ‘mechanics’ of an alien species’ mode of communication, with no easily accessible frame of reference. The movie looks great, sounds very cool, boasts some very fine performances, and presents some very ‘big’ ideas and concepts in a very pretty (but strangely ‘cold’) package. There are some visuals that did look slick on The Big Screen, but truth be told, I think that, for most people, this title will be more comfortable to jump into on Home Release. It’s definitely worth seeing…just don’t expect an over-the-top action ‘popcorn’ spectacle that’ll blow your socks off and thrill you from beginning to end.

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