A film review by Craig J. Koban November 18, 2016

RANK:  #3


2016, PG-13, 116 mins.


Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks  /  Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly  /  Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpern  /  Tzi Ma as General Shang

Directed by Denis Villeneuve  /  Written by Eric Heisserer, based on the short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE by Ted Chiang

Science fiction movies about aliens arriving on our planet are as old as the genre itself, which means that any filmmaker trying to impart some level of ingenuity into them is a daunting task, to be sure.  

French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve - whose previous three films were all masterpieces in their own right, PRISONERS, ENEMY, and last year's SICARRIO - seems more than equal to the task in ARRIVAL, a sci-fi drama that, yes, concerns beings from the cosmos landing on Earth, which sends the planet's population into a collective tailspin of unease and uncertainty.  In many ways, the film - adapted from Ted Chiang's short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE - adheres to many of the staple requisites of these types of genre efforts. 

However, ARRIVAL never falls victim to slavish adhering to the overused formulas and conventions of past films involving alien visitation.  Villeneuve understands that he has to work within this played out genre while simultaneously subverting its trappings at every waking moment.  The inherent greatness of ARRIVAL is that it absconds away from massive city decimating action and destruction that usually typifies these types of films.  Villeneuve's film is a VFX powerhouse, no question, but ARRIVAL doesn't lazily rely on eye popping visuals to sell itself.  Rather, ARRIVAL is a far more compellingly esoteric sci-fi offering that engages us on the scope of its ideas and themes.  Like bravura and memorable sci-fi films of yesteryear, like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ARRIVAL stimulates the mind first and foremost and serves as a tense and topical allegory of the very times we live in.  There's a sophistication to Villeneuve's approach here in tantalizing us with big questions that teases our expectations of these kind of films and then radically turns them upside down of their heads.  That's hard to do in this cinematic day and age. 



The film is also a leisurely slow burn affair, which is ultimately refreshing considering how so many previous films like it rush right out of the gate to get to the first large scale set piece.  Villeneuve respects the patience and attention spans of his viewers.  ARRIVAL opens by showing the arrival of a dozen extra-terrestrial vessels on Earth, all of which look like gigantic black eggs cut in half that float perpendicular several meters off of the ground.  They don't attack our planet, though, but instead remain....completely still and motionless.  They apparently mean us no harm.  Of course, the U.S. government has great concerns as to the future threat that the aliens pose and desperately try to find a manner of communicating with them.  The visitors do allow for humans to enter their ships via an opening at the bottom of it (that only opens at very specific time intervals everyday), but scientists become completely stumped with attempting to understand these strange beings, dubbed "Heptapods" because of their seven limbed bodies (imagine a hairless Mister Snuffleupagus morphed with an octopus).

One U.S. Army Colonel, Weber (Forrest Whitaker), decides to enlist a brilliant linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), to find some manner of deciphering the alien's convoluted and mysterious language (they write, so to speak, by spewing out ink-like projections from their appendages, which then takes the form of indecipherable spherical shapes).  Louise begrudgingly accepts, and along for the mission is another intrepid scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) that hopes to pool his knowledge with Louise to decode what appears to be an unbreakable alien language.  Louise is damaged goods, though, seeing as she's haunted by memories of her daughter that died of a rare disease, but she nevertheless perseveres and makes the first of many trips inside the vessel with Ian in hopes of comprehending the aliens' motives, with a deeply suspicious world on the outside awaiting their findings. 

Those expecting gargantuan sequences of aliens turning against humanity and launching a global interstellar war against them will be completely disappointed by ARRIVAL.  For the rest of us that appreciate suspenseful films the create undulating sensations of tension at the thought of what's to come next, then Villeneuve's film is ingeniously engineered and cunningly crafted.  ARRIVAL never once feels cheaply derivative, and Villeneuve wisely understands that envisioning moments of first contact between the characters and aliens is arguably more unnervingly intriguing than any scene featuring the vessels laying cities to waste.  The first moments between Louise, Ian and company as they experience the aliens for the first time are among the best moments in ARRIVAL: we feel their trepidation with exploring the unknown and Villeneuve drums up the eeriness here to Hitchcockian levels.   

The film also envisions the aliens themselves not as humanoid creatures, but as something truly alien.  This is, if anything, an exploratory science fiction film - we feel like we're learning alongside the characters.  It's also a film that's ostensibly about how language works, not only between beings that are completely unfamiliar with each other, but also between humans from different walks of life.  It's here where we get to the compulsively enthralling thematic heart of ARRIVAL.  The story, at its core, is about the trials and tribulations of communication on multiple fronts and how it can fundamentally break down when we become overridden by fears of the unknown.  There's the obvious conundrum of Louise and Ian trying to find some manner of making the aliens understand human language to disseminate their intentions, and, of course, the aliens are doing the same back.  Then there are obvious communication barriers that exist between he world's nations as to what proper course of action should be taken against the aliens themselves, which leads to great ideological fractures between countries that further exacerbates the situation.  An aura of mistrusts taints the ties between aliens and humans as well as between humans themselves.  ARRIVAL's fundamental ideas about the power of language and how, if misinterpreted, it can lead to poor decision making is paramount to the human condition.  If anything, the film holds up a mirror to the far reaching problems that affect our modern world, especially for how we often let xenophobic stances impede our willingness to relate to and work with each other. 

ARRIVAL is also punctuated by a thanklessly superb lead performance that helps anchor its thought provoking themes.  Amy Adams brings an emotionally grounded core to the film as her confident and determined, but wounded and traumatized linguist that's placed in an impossibly difficult situation.  Her performance is mostly captured in her face in terms of dealing with the awe inspiringly seismic impact that coming face-to-face with aliens would, not doubt, entail, and Adams sells the veracity of her character and situation with authentically rendered strokes (that, and it's wonderful to behold a science fiction film like this featuring an empowered female lead and scientists as the heroes).  Complimenting Adams' tour de force work is Villeneuve's impeccably rendered direction.  With sumptuous cinematography by Bradford Young and a stunningly effective music score by Johann Johannsson that flows together in tandem to craft a hauntingly atmospheric vibe of the otherworldly, Villeneuve's film feels both epically large scale, but intimately introspective at the same time.  The manner that he subtly uses visual effects to invite us in to consider these strange creatures with endless fascination and ultimately empathy displays an atypical tact; they're used in service of the story and not the other way around. 

Just when you think ARRIVAL couldn't be anymore absorbing, it throws all viewers for a mental loop with a late breaking revelation and plot twist that's, for once, unexpected and well earned.  That, and it also forces you to revaluate the movie as a whole and consider its further added in themes of determinism and free will, which consequently will propel viewers to multiple repeat viewings of the film.  Ultimately, ARRIVAL is what all grandly envisioned science fiction should be: A stimulating and rewarding thinking man's exploration into contemporary concerns that are relayed using storylines that involve fantastical extremes.  It works stupendously as an emotionally powerful human drama about what it means to be human while simultaneously engaging our minds in its extraordinarily ambitious narrative of what first contact with unknown beings not of this planet would be like.  And for Villeneuve it all but cements him as one of the foremost directorial minds working today, and one who's clearly unafraid of any genre assignment or challenge.  He's that good.  The BLADE RUNNER sequel - which he's set to direct - is in awfully stellar hands, and if you're in doubt of that then all you need to do is see ARRIVAL to be convinced.  

Trust me.


My CTV Preview of ARRIVAL

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