Movie Review: “Arrival” – It’s About Time

Written by Jeremiah Greville November 16, 2016

Arrival (2016) - Amy AdamsLet’s get this out of the way: Arrival is a good movie, even a great one at times, but it’s not entirely without flaw. Based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, it’s a faithful adaptation of the central science fiction concept of that novella, one that I’ll endeavour not to spoil for you here. All you need to know going in is that the aliens have arrived, and humanity wants to know why. To their credit, most of the trailers have kept the reveals to a minimum, and while there are spoilers–some might even say twists, they’re used to highlight the story and buttress the themes, rather than undermine what you know. Arrival is a good film that’s introspective without collapsing under the weight of its own ideas. If you think that might be for you, or aren’t sure–read on for my full review.

Arrival stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner Dr. Ian Donnelly, a pair of scientists tasked with understanding twelve mysterious giant alien pods that have landed all over the Earth. They’re recruited by a Colonel for the US military, played by Forest Whitaker, to interact with the alien pods at the US landing site in Montana. The film follows Dr. Banks, a renowned linguist, as she figures out how to communicate with the aliens through verbal, and then written language, in an effort to figure out why they’re here. Along the way she has to navigate interpersonal and international hurdles while coming to terms with memories of a personal tragedy. While everyone in the cast gives their best performance, this is not an ensemble show–Adams is the star, and she absolutely shines.

“I forgot how good it felt to be held by you.”

The way that Arrival treats the, well, arrival, of the alien pods is one of the best things about this film. Director Denis Villeneauve chooses to frame their appearance on Earth from the perspective of Adams’ character Banks, so instead of the standard gaudy shots of alien vessels and UFOs appearing on the horizon that we’re used to getting in films, we’re instead treated to the more subdued empty lecture hall that she enters, to the buzzing cellphones and texts that permeate the silence indicating that something is wrong. She learns about the UFOs the same way most of us learn about worldwide events–from the news, and from the people around her. It’s subtle, but incredibly significant that the main character learns about the aliens the same way we would because it cements the realism of what’s happening, and tells us what kind of film this will be. No action sequences, no set pieces–this is first and foremost a thoughtful exploration of language and human interaction.

Arrival (2016) - Montana Shell

But is it also a timely metaphor? Much has been said about the message of this film, stressing the importance of understanding and communication, and the often volatile responses we can have when misunderstandings occur. Arrival comes at a time when Americans are divided following one of the most negative elections in US history, and the idea of communication occurring between two sides speaking very different languages is especially resonant. There’s always the danger of conflict throughout, but remember–this isn’t an action movie, and the two sides presented here aren’t at odds, at least at first. The whole point of Arrival is to illustrate that understanding can prevent conflict, but only if both sides mean each other no harm. It’s a system that only works if there’s mutual trust, and a presumption of peaceful motives. That’s not where we often seem to be, politically, but Arrival could be signalling that’s where we should be. The film isn’t a metaphor for current politics, but it is a “message movie” about how it thinks politics should work in general. It’s simplistic, and certainly flawed, but whether or not it succeeds is up to you, and if you agree.

“I can read it. I know what it is.”

Villeneauve and cinematographer Bradford Young have chosen a subdued colour palette for the film, which is at times sumptuous but most often cold and alienating. We’re provided with breathtaking views of the alien pods hovering around the world, but most of the time the palette is used to contrast the relatively warm colours of Banks’ memories and flashbacks. In this way, the palette is a reflection of her emotional state throughout the film, becoming bright and lividly contrasted during her translation work with the alien species. It resembles many of Christopher Nolan’s films, and the muted colours of the DCEU film universe, so it may not be to the taste of everyone watching. However, since it’s employed with a character’s specific emotional journey in mind, it more or less works. But be warned, the muted tone is not only in the colours. This is a steadily-paced, slow-moving film, and while I wouldn’t say it’s overly dour or a downer, it IS a movie where you’ll have to watch how loudly you’re chewing your popcorn.

Arrival (2016) - Amy Adams

There are some problems with this film, but based on the quality of the movie as a whole, and how little these problems affect the overall product, they’re really more gripes than actual flaws. The film spends way, way too much time on close ups of Adam’s face throughout. It feels like almost a third of the entire runtime, and while these close ups are there to demonstrate her emotional reaction, they’re entirely unneeded and far too overused, especially since Adams’ excellent performance is more than enough without them. Another weak area of the film is in how ham-fisted some of the more emotional elements are at times. Banks’ daughter often talks and behaves much younger than her age, reflecting a parent’s idealized version of a child, rather than an actual character, which is distracting. And the development of a love story throughout the film is treated as inevitable, rather than shown actually developing. It’s a sad sort of Hallmark romance treatment that gets overshadowed by the film’s larger themes.

As a science fiction film, there are some cool new ideas at play, like the conflicting gravity in the alien spaceships, and the concept of language use affecting thought process. But most of the science fiction in this film is window dressing for the message it’s trying to convey, and Villeneauve has a tendency to gloss over basic storytelling elements to get that message across. The most obvious example of this is the soft twist about two-thirds into the film; it’s telegraphed expertly, but treated as if the audience had no clue what was happening by that point–which many of us did, simply BECAUSE it was telegraphed so well. It’s less a twist than a confirmation of what’s really going on, but still feels slightly insulting. By the time it’s revealed, it doesn’t need to be revealed at all.

“Kangaroo.”

Arrival is at its best when focusing on the central mystery surrounding the film, and the heroes’ work to unravel it. Amy Adams delivers another wonderful lead performance, and director Denis Villeneauve delivers some lush visuals, despite the muted tone and subdued, introspective story. The language deciphering and international conflict that drive the plot are the meat and potatoes of what makes this film work, but the underlying theme of peaceful communication is what will make it relevant for years to come. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a mature, considered approach to first contact that we don’t get very often, and provides a unique spin on an old trope. For fans of speculative fiction, Arrival is what we’ve been waiting for. And if you ask me, it’s about time.

My Rating: 8/10

Arrival (2016) - Theatrical Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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