Movie Review: Arrival (2016)

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  • Director: Denis Villeneuve
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
  • Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
  • Based On the Short Story by: Ted Chiang
  • Music By: Jóhann Jóhannsson
  • Cinematography: Bradford Young
  • Running Time: 116 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 11, 2016 (USA)
  • DVD Release (USA): February 14, 2017

Synopsis: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors (From IMDb).

Review: Since the debut of Ridley Scott’s famous Alien franchise in 1979, a majority of science fiction movies seem to focus on the horrors that might lie just beyond the Milky Way. If aliens exist, will they kill us? When the aliens invade, will humanity successfully resist? How quickly will all the astronauts die once they encounter alien lifeforms? These three questions form the foundation for the vast majority of science fiction films in the last thirty years. Once you have seen one alien horror movie, you have seen them all, in my humble opinion. There are only so many ways to make alien pregnancy scares, body possession, and horrific deaths seem innovative and “new”. Personally, I think that most alien movies substitute gratuitous violence and sex for character development and strong narrative arcs. Thankfully, not every alien movie relies upon these overused tropes. Arrival is one of the most thought provoking alien film to come out in the past decade.

Based upon Todd Chiang’s short story, Stories of Your Life, Arrival tells the story of Dr. Louise Banks exploration into alien linguistics. In the near future twelve alien landing pods arrive and hover over different location across the globe. Before launching an all-out war, the United States Army decides to see if they can decipher the alien language. To this end, Colonel Weber recruits Dr. Banks to come translate the alien language and learn their reason to coming. Paired with scientist Ian Donnelly, Louise starts to visit the spaceship and interact with the aliens face-to-face. After several trips, she realizes that she can communicate with them through writing. Working on a tight deadline, Louise and Ian seek to discover the secret that could either save or destroy them.

 Arrival is one of the more thoughtful science fiction movies to come out in a long time. Very few movies in this genre are built upon the premise of trying to communicate with aliens instead of waging all out war. I appreciate how the filmmakers managed to merge realism with a sense of wonderment, which helps keep the underlying mystery engrossing throughout the narrative. Most modern films which include a mysterious subplot give up everything too soon and end the narrative on a disappointing anticlimax. In my opinion, the puzzle and thought-provoking solutions in Arrival enhanced the movie’s transcendent quality; the story ends with satisfying answers and fantastic questions. Bradford Young’s cinematography borders on mesmerizing, crafting a familiar yet alien world  without relying on action or adrenaline.

In terms of special effects, the aliens in Arrival certainly stand out. Instead of relying on the humanoid/insect look of most modern cinema aliens depictions, these aliens looked like giant squids.The two “U.S.” aliens are huge inky black creatures that glide through a substance resembling steamed milk on the other side of a transparent wall in the middle of their ship. These aliens click, ping, knock, and moan in some kind of guttural language. Their written language resembles circles with various squiggly marks representing different words; these symbols look a lot like the weird ink blotches made famous by the Rorschach test. Since their language differs so drastically from English, trying to get straightforward answers to the questions “why are you here” and “where do you come from” proves difficult. 

Dr. Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly try their best to make sense of these weird alien language splotches. Banks may be fluent in Arabic and Contonese and Donnelly is a world class physicist; but they struggle to male sense out of alien clicks and moans. Adding to the tension, Louise struggles with coming to terms over the death of her daughter, Hannah, to a terminal illness. Multiple flashbacks take up about 1/3rd of the narrative detailing Louise’s relationship with Hannah. Despite her emotional anguish, Louise maintains that the joy their relationship while her daughter was alive outweighs the pain of Hannah’s death. During a moment of reflection, Louise says, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.”

I think Amy Adams is an extremely talented actress and she imbued Louise with some complex feeling. Adams is one of the few actresses in Hollywood, in my opinion, who can disappear into a role and become the character. Louise is a complex, highly intelligent, and grieving character who would not have been compelling in the hands of a less-talented actress.  Jeremy Renner put in a solid performance as Ian Donnelly, he definitely looks like a physicist/mathematician. Renner is a underrated actor who is capable of a portraying a wide range of emotions in very small roles. Since Louise was the main focus of this narrative, Donnelly was given some less compelling scenes. However, I think Renner held his own opposite Adams and was a believable love interest. Also, it was refreshing to see a love subplot between two characters of a similar age and education level; a rarity in mainstream Hollywood films. 

Overall, Arrival is a compelling, well-written science-fiction film that prompts viewers to think about the things we truly care about and cherish. The film deals with the grief and pain of life, and the human capacity to choose to love and willingly sacrifice for others in spite of anguish. I also appreciate the clever twist at the end, which I will not reveal in case some of my readers have not seen the film. If you are in the mood for an intelligent film, Arrival  is worth watching. 

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