Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, may be one of the most refreshingly reserved and meaningful sci-fi films in some time. Paced in such a way that you never feel overwhelmed; structured in a way that you are constantly interested in seeing what revelations will be unearthed next, and delivered wonderfully through sights and sounds that amaze and add to the mysteriousness of it all. Arrival is one of those films that has you gripped from beginning to end – but of course not without a few hiccups along the way. I’m eager and excited to review this film, so let’s get that underway.
The story in the film follows Dr. Louise Banks – played by Amy Adams – a more than qualified linguist who along with the help of Ian Donnelly – played by Jeremy Renner – is tasked with understanding and deciphering an alien language. Mysterious vessels (12 to be exact) have placed themselves in different parts of the world, and now there is a race for time, as everyone scrambles to understand just what the intentions of these aliens are, and if there is a threat to be dealt with.
As has come to be expected from Villeneuve’s films; Arrival is a refined and extremely well structured film – in nearly all facets. He has the ability to introduce us to an environment, and then makes us feel in the know, even if we don’t fully understand everything just yet. You never feel lost or out-of-place within one of Villeneuve’s films – which is something that is not easy to achieve. Arrival introduces us to ideas and concepts that are far-reaching and complex in design, but I never felt overwhelmed or confused by any of them. The information that I needed, came to me when it was necessary, and I always felt I was a part of the experience. This is something that was hugely important for the film, and for the audiences’ experience. Had it not been this way, the film would have surely struggled, or perhaps even failed.
But let’s talk about some of those facets that help to make, Arrival such an engaging and bilateral experience. Characters are always a good place to start, and so I will do so. Leading the film is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and though her character is basic in her design (at first) she builds into someone who brilliantly drives the film, and also brings it some of its most meaningful moments. Adams as an actress is someone you can nearly always count on; her ability to lead big films, with lofty goals, and yet still manage to develop and deliver a character that feels well-rounded and worthy of your time, is something she must be recognised for. In Arrival, she perfectly evolves the character, and does so in a way that feels congruent to the tone of the film.
Dr. Louise Banks as a character continues to grow thorough out the film – all the way up until its final frame. That continuous development makes it easy to attach yourself to the character; empathising and rooting for her, through-out. The character is also a perfectly written fit for the film. Her role as the linguist who is tasked with deciphering the aliens language is one that is unique in concept (most films wouldn’t have such a character leading the film) and it is also surprisingly compelling – never have I been so excited to see someone develop their understanding of a language before. It all makes for something that is so very different from what is usually tackled in films like this. Instead of roundtables with multiple government talking heads; or situation rooms with ooh-rah military men deciding how they want to extinguish the alien threat. We have a talented linguist and a scientist trying to further their understanding of a completely new language, and way of communicating through that language.
I’m also happy to say that this might be one of Jeremy Renner’s best performances in quite some time. The reason I say that, is because during the film, I didn’t see Jeremy Renner, I instead saw, Ian Donnelly; a scientist who wants to help to uncover the reason for the aliens visit, as much as Dr. Banks does. I’ve recently felt that Renner’s’ performances have been lacking in the necessary subtly, which has resulted in me not being able to see his character – only him as an actor. In Arrival he brings just the right amount of what is needed to make him someone who adds to the scope of the film, rather than be a distraction.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the films two main characters is how it develops them – it is something wholly unique to, Arrival. I can’t say too much without spoiling some major plot points (which I will not be doing… No Spoilers) and so what I will say is that the film is able to take two people in particular (Dr. Louise Banks especially) and evolve them in a direction that isn’t commonly done. What it certainly does is make me want to see the film again – you’ll find that many aspects of this film make seeing it again, a worthy experience to seek.
One of the other aspects to the film that add to making, Arrival such an encompassing experience: are all the sights and sounds. Let’s start off with sound. In the film there is an assisting symbiosis between the score and the sound design. The music in the film is eerie; it’s unnerving. It adds this mysterious and grandiose tone to the film; making every time the main characters interact with the aliens, or enter their vessel, a tense and curiosity-filled endeavour. Meanwhile the sound-design adds to the presentation of the aliens and their other-worldly constructions. The first time we enter the strange craft; there are sounds that are spine-chilling; when the aliens first make sounds, it is something so different, but also weirdly familiar. What both these elements do is add to the overall effect that it all has on you. Before you’ve even seen some of the most eagerly awaited mysteries in the film (primarily the aliens) you already have this unnerving sense about you; there is something so very different about it all, and the sounds play such an integral part of making you feel that way.
Along with all the wonderfully creepy sounds, there are of course the incredible things that you end up seeing in the film. One shot immediately comes to mind: it’s early on in the film when Dr. Louise Banks is traveling by helicopter to the sight where the alien spacecraft is. When we get close, the camera does this great swooping shot around the area, showing off the strange effects that the craft is having on the atmosphere, and we also get a sense of the scale of it. Coupled with the music, this shot is so fulfilling to see, it just set me up to know that I was going to be watching something special.
But it is not only the large grand shots; there is also the design and the detail that went into the look of the aliens and their vessel. The design of the aliens is simple but comprehensible and they never looked distractingly silly. Also their environment around them is one of intriguing simplicity; nothing flashy and outlandish, just something that you believe aliens who are traveling to planets might design – practicality over style. Also that decision too have things reserved in there look means that the film never feels like its stepping into some schlocky sci-fi territory. There’s an air of realism to it, which made losing myself in the whole idea of the film easier. Having it all feed onto the overall tone of the film and never step outside the boundaries that it initially sets up; really does make for a fuller experience.
So one of the final elements I now want to approach is perhaps the most wide-ranging in its complexity: the story and the various levels to it (again, No Spoilers). Arrival starts off really well, it’s slow in its introduction; giving you time to settle into what’s happening. It doesn’t throw lots of things at you; it doesn’t start off with scenes filled with mass-panic, where there are car pile-ups and people being attacked on the streets as fires rage on behind them. Arrival starts off in a smart, coherent way and then dives straight into putting its characters and its story in the forefront. It develops them at a pace that works to the benefit of the audience and it keeps you interested by its many twists and turns.
I feel the only real failings with the structure of the plot are 1: its attempt to introduce an antagonist into the mix is really ham-fisted, and does not work within the rest of the films selected direction. The lack of subtlety or time (the development that was needed to make the antagonist a meaningful threat) in the story is unfortunate, as the films succeeds so well at nearly every other story-element it approaches – and there are some lofty ideas that the film is somehow able to approach with such ease. 2: there are some points in the film where it feels the need to present information to you in a way that feels really heavy-handed, and I found it to be distracting – mainly because it was so blatant in its approach. However, with the concepts that the film is dealing with, perhaps it is understandable why they would want to telegraph certain things to the audience.
But the film still succeeds overall. Perhaps its greatest achievement is how it is able to so easily explore ideas and concepts that are far beyond the normal well in which sci-fi films usually pull from. This film felt so unique in its approach and its execution, and it took something that you wouldn’t immediately think was interesting or exciting enough to lead a film, and made it into one of the most emotionally resonant sci-fi– hell one of the most emotionally resonant FILMS I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in some time. This is a film that challenges you, it intrigues you, and it delights you with many of its aspects – and at the head of it all? Denis Villeneuve.
Villeneuve is a director who never delivers the same film twice. I have seen a number of his films at this point (‘Prisoners’ being my favourite) and never once have I felt like, “Oh there’s the trope that shows this to be a Villeneuve film. That’s his signature move right there.” He is a director who always brings a new voice and a new style to each film. Unlike a Tarantino-type, he is someone who finds the voice of the film, and lets that lead its story. He is absolutely a director to be recognised and respected.
Arrival… a film that offers so much; a wonderful experience that had me completely invested from the beginning, and did not disappoint when the credits began to roll. This is a film that I feel will absolutely benefit from a second watch, and I fully intend to follow through with that second watch… What a film.
I unwaveringly recommend this film. There isn’t much else to say but, get out there and experience this film!
I’d love to hear what you thought of ‘Arrival’! Please leave any comments down below, letting me know. If you’re interested in being kept up-to-date on when I post more reviews, perhaps consider following my blog directly. Or following me over on Twitter – @GavinsTurtle. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my review, you’re now one of my favourite people.