REVIEW: Arrival (2016)

Theatrical Release Poster - Paramount Pictures

Theatrical Release Poster – Paramount Pictures

The following is a review of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – based on a short story by Ted Chiang.

The very best directors can do anything. They aren’t just locked in on a single genre, they master multiple essential ones. They also aren’t ‘filmmaking slaves’ to a single franchise. While they may operate within a franchise from time to time – like Alfonso Cuarón did with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – they don’t dedicate their careers to them.

In 2017, director Denis Villeneuve will have made his first franchise film with Blade Runner 2049 – a sequel to the Ridley Scott science-fiction classic. Villeneuve isn’t a household name for the general moviegoing public, but for film buffs he is one of the most recognized ‘newer’ talents.

I haven’t yet been lucky enough to watch many of his early Canadian films, but I have been able to watch everything he has made in the 2010s. Before Incendies, Villeneuve wasn’t even a blip on my radar, but that film put him on the map, so to speak.

With Incendies, Villeneuve made a heartbreaking film with an unbelievable climax. Honestly, even though I am a Dane, I believe Villeneuve and Canada were robbed of the ‘Best Foreign Language Film Award’ at the 83rd Academy Awards, when Denmark and Susanne Bier won the Oscar for In a Better World.

At the time of writing, Denis Villeneuve hasn’t made a French-Canadian film since Incendies, but he hasn’t lost his ability to entertain and amaze audiences. 2013 was a great year for Villeneuve, as two films that he directed were released – Enemy and Prisoners.

Villeneuve went from making a heartbreaking drama to making two strong thrillers. In 2015, Villeneuve then graduated to making a cynical crime drama – Sicario – that was sadly overlooked when the nominees for ‘Best Picture’ at the 88th Academy Awards were announced.

I don’t usually takes this long to introduce the director of a film, when I’m reviewing a film. But after having seen Arrival, I feel that Villeneuve deserves more recognition. I believe that he hasn’t made a false move as a director since I started following his career this decade. That includes Arrival, which I believe is easily one of the best science fiction films of this decade, and one of the best films of the year.

For a very long time, I considered reading the short story, which Arrival is based on, before watching the film. Ultimately, I decided against it as I didn’t want any aspect of a Villeneuve film spoiled for me, as I believe they are some of the most engaging and interesting films being made this decade.

Arrival isn’t all that different from what Villeneuve has made before, even though it is his first science fiction film as far as I’m aware. You see, while Arrival is an ‘alien encounter’ film it isn’t the classic alien invasion blockbuster film. Earlier this year, Independence Day: Resurgence saw humankind defending Earth from vicious aliens, and if that is the kind of film you’re expecting from Arrival, then think again.

Arrival isn’t a bloated, action-packed, science fiction franchise starter. No, Arrival is, instead, a smart and challenging science fiction film that might be surprisingly understated to some. It tells a story about how we, on a planet with no person able to speak for every nation, might greet and communicate with aliens that suddenly ‘arrive,’ so to speak. The central character in the film isn’t the President of the United States or some soldier. Instead, the film follows a professor of linguistics as she tries to understand these aliens and find out why they’ve arrived now.

There is much more to this film, but to write about those elements in this spoiler-free review wouldn’t be right, as Arrival does a fantastic job of really making you question how you view everything in the film at one crucial point. It might be a slow-burn, but there is a significant and pleasing pay-off in the thrilling and thought-provoking final act. The film makes a lot of really important points about teamwork, cooperation, and communication, but those points aren’t really what make you think in the final act or after you leave the theater. That’s all I can say here.

If I were to point out which previous Villeneuve film Arrival reminded me of the most, it might actually be Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I wouldn’t have thought that before I watched the film, but it does make a lot of sense. Of the films that I had seen Villeneuve do prior to Arrival, Enemy was definitely the toughest film to understand.

I love Enemy a lot more than a lot of people do, and while that film is a psychological thriller, I do think Arrival shares certain traits with Enemy. In fact, there’s a certain scene in Arrival – wherein they discuss the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – that any fan of Enemy will recognize from that film.

I loved the way the film was shot. Villeneuve usually teams up with Roger Deakins – a legendary cinematographer – but the Arrival cinematographer is actually Bradford Young – one of the newer talents in that filmmaking position. Young has previously worked on Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and he is apparently going to be teaming up with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on Lucasfilm’s Han Solo spin-off film.

I also feel like I need to mention the wonderfully eerie and atmospheric musical score that the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson made for this film. These scenes would be effective without it, but the score adds something quite indescribable to the film.

I think that one of the wonderful moments in the film is when Amy Adams’ character first sees the aliens. She is clearly shaken by the experience, and when that scene was over, I realized just how effective that scene was. It shook me too. The music builds when the helicopter that she is in lands by one of the spacecrafts, and that’s just one of the other wonderful scenes where the music really adds a lot to the film.

I also need to talk about Amy Adams who gives one of her best performances yet in Arrival. She masterfully plays a very capable and curious character, and she gives the standout performance here. It is pretty amazing how much Amy Adams has grown as an actress, I vividly remember the smile she put on my face in her first big film as the innocent and giddy Brenda in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Now, Adams is one of Hollywood’s best leading ladies.

This brings me to the things that I didn’t like, and there isn’t a lot to get to here. While I think both Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker do fine jobs here, I have issues with both of them. I’m not sure what kind of accent Whitaker was going for here, but it took me out of the film at one point. Renner plays a theoretical physicist, but if you somehow missed that, then I don’t blame you. Renner’s character doesn’t do a lot, really.

The final problem I had with the film itself was that there was this one soldier that ‘went rogue’ because of political propaganda he watched on television. The character doesn’t do much else before going rogue, but what he does changes the film in a pretty significant way, and I didn’t feel like it was particularly realistic that he would have had the chance to ‘go rogue.’ I’m really trying to not spoil anything, which is difficult, so I’ll leave it at that.

I clearly loved Arrival, and, now that I’ve thought it over a little bit, I think that it might be my favorite Denis Villeneuve film yet. It also might be my favorite alien encounter film of all-time. I do think it’s a film you need to watch more than once, and I look forward to getting that chance at some point in the future.

9.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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3 comments

  1. When I read a review about a Denis Villeneuve’s movie, the difference is usually clear when the writer has seen Incendies or not. Not that the others wont appreciate his work, but the one who saw it usually follow what he had did after. So I agree, even if I hadn’t saw the opposition, I cannot imagine a movie better to win the Foreign Language Oscar that year.

    I saw early films of him, but what makes me curious is that I ear, and verify after, that he had participated a TV cinema contest. I don’t know if this contest exist or was popular elsewhere, but the French name was “Course destination monde” (race around the world). And the participant went every where to produce very quick documentaries only with a camera (film at this time) and did all the step to produce it for the weekly show. So Denis won the first price the year he participate in the 1990-91 season. I don’t know if it can exist still, but if I can, I’m very curious if I can watch it (somewhere in the Radio-Canada catacomb I suppose).

    1. Yeah, I don’t get how it didn’t win. Bier’s film is fine, but I do think that Incendies is a great film that stays with you.

      The ‘course destination monde’ contest sounds very interesting, but I’m not familiar with it.

      Thanks for the comment!

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