Arrival is outstanding cinema. One of the best films of 2016, if not the best, it achieves both mystery and subtle spectacle without need for pyrotechnics or scenes of destruction. Rather, it offers a feast for the mind, and it seals its tale with such a revelation, that we walk away the recipients of a profoundly intelligent and emotional experience that satisfies and impresses on every level. An extraordinary film.
The Production: 5/5
“Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
The world is gripped in shock when mysterious, smooth and curved elliptical-shaped craft appear across the globe. Governments in the affected areas, where craft hover above the ground, work to understand why they have come. In the U.S., Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached and recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), commander of the unit attempting to communicate with the craft that arrived over Montana. Dr. Banks is a linguistics and communications expert, a critical skillset needed in the attempt to establish contact with the large creatures, who become known as heptapods, aboard the craft. She is joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), as they work to connect with the most basic of communication precepts. But the work is challenging and slow, and tensions around the globe flare. Early efforts by each task force from governments around the world to share their information and progress with other nations loses ground to protectionist fears and potential misunderstandings for why the alien craft have arrived. Dr.’s Banks and Donnelly believe they have discovered why they are here, but the risks are great if they are wrong. And time is running out.
Arrival is a rarity in modern cinema; an original idea contained within the oft-examined premise of what happens when beings from another world visit earth. Arrival quickly shifts expectations, grounding the approach with well researched and rational approaches to the potential phenomena, and weaves an intelligent mystery through its story that genuinely surprises and strikes an affecting tone. With a protagonist using science and the bounty of the mind rather than muscular bravery and brute force when facing the remarkable events, we are treated to notable realism. That our protagonist is a woman augers a hopeful signal to Hollywood that such a feat should not be so damn rare. To say Arrival is refreshing is an understatement. A film made with such skill, attention to detail, and respect for the originating short story, (Story of Your Life by award winning author, Ted Chiang), that we find ourselves in awe.
Ted Chiang’s short story does have differences from the final adapted screenplay by Eric Heisserer. The role of Dr. Ian Donnelly – played with a delightful subtlety by Jeremy Renner, has a greater role, as does that of physics, which Chiang research and explained in detail (but in a simple way we can understand – which is part of his gift) as part of his story. An increased focus on Louse Banks (Amy Adams), and the linguistic approach to understanding the beings aboard the mysterious craft, is the right move narratively for the film. These differences also allow lovers of the film to seek the originating short story out and enjoy even more detail and well-researched science.
Amy Adams is wonderful as Louise Banks, balancing mental curiosity with the natural fear response to such a high stress situation with great conviction. Adams delivers an absorbing portrayal of a women with impressive linguistic gifts rocked by natural fear, and the impatience of the military (and an anxious world). Her absence from the list of Academy Award nominees for Best Actress is baffling. Adams has support from a fine cast, in particular Jeremy Renner’s wide-eyed Ian Donnelly, who at once recognizes the importance of Banks and her approach. Renner is a good actor who sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. In the Marvel Universe his Hawkeye character often seems sidelined, and in his two appearances in the Mission: Impossible series, he’s never quite been able to escape the well-earned shadow of Tom Cruise. But here, as Donnelly, he effortlessly reminds us he is an actor worth watching and one for whom the right role at the right time is important. The final actor in the major trio is Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber. The military will often play the intentional or unintentional role of adversary – either from being trigger happy, or too slow to respond to the arrival of beings or craft from beyond our world. Through the Weber character, and Whitaker’s portrayal, the military inches into those reactionary pitfalls somewhat, but in a more grounded and less perfunctory way. The need to understand why the craft have arrived and spread themselves out around the world feels urgent. Col. Weber acts and reacts reasonably, and it also feels reasonable that the level of precaution is high, and the suspicion that runs parallel with patience, not entirely unreasonable. The scientific team is given freedom to attempt communications, but that freedom is on a short, tense leash.
Arrival is science fiction sustenance for the brain, but it does not starve the heart, achieving a level of emotional resonance often missing from impressive exercises in sci-fi marvel. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) has once again created a magnificent piece of cinema from an assembly of extraordinary parts; intelligence and subtle performances from the small cast, seamless and fresh visual effects, an affecting screenplay that grabs attention and doesn’t let go, and a masterful score by Jóhann Jóhannsson who brings an incredible dialect to the language of cinematic scores. Every element at play here serves to bring forth intelligent and emotionally rich science fiction that found its audience. Critical and commercial success for such a film means there is hope for humanity yet!
3D Rating: NA
Paramount presents Arrival on Blu-ray in its original theatrical 2.39:1 aspect ratio with fine detail, and a faithful reproduction of the muted, brown-grey dominated tone of the film. There’s little warmth in the image, by design, and reports from those that saw this theatrically who say the blacks are somewhat milky and indistinct in the darkest scenes, reinforce that this is the filmmaker’s intention (as that is what you’ll see on the disc). I will say, viewing on both a Plasma display and DLP, that the darkest scenes – and there are many scenes with low light – aren’t distracting or murky enough as to obscure that which matters most within those scenes. There is still find detail, however. The single source of light aboard the craft, for example, illuminates Amy Adams and her efforts to find a common means of communications with the heptapods, suffices to show what’s happening and do so while striking a certain mood at the same time. Nothing is over-lit, or rich in color, which helps focus the viewer on the ideas (and dialogue) instead of the visuals – though the shots of the craft over various cities, and the cloud gripping the ground at the Montana site, are stimulating visuals.
Disappointingly, Arrival is absent a Dolby Atmos audio offering – especially odd given the importance of sound in the film and the Academy Award nominations for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing among the total of eight Academy Award nominations the film received. Having said that, the English 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is excellent, with immersive surround and precision clarity in the channels. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is powerful and very well represented here. That’s key given the relation the music has to the overall experience. The score is atmospheric and serves as a representation of the characters emotional responses – cautious wonder, fear, stress, and hopeful possibility. The sounds of the heptapods is also superbly delivered. Finally, other various sounds, such as helicopters flying, jets screaming across the sky, and the bustle of military personal at their posts on base, are handled nicely as well. Dialogue is crisp primarily in the center channel.
Special Features: 3/5
The light set of special features, along with the missing Dolby Atmos track (unusual for a recent Paramount release) would seem to suggest a more complete, special edition release in the future. This film deserves a deeper examination and appreciation than this collection of featurettes provides. Still, the quality of what has been provided is high, particularly the examination of the score in the film, the roughly half-hour featurette that covers the most ground, from the story to the film’s design and director ‘Xenolinguistics’), and the examination of the core ideas in the film (‘Principles of Time, Memory & Language’).
Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival
Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design
Eternal Recurrence: The Score
Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process
Principles of Time, Memory & Language
Arrival is the best science fiction film to come along in a long time. A ‘What if’ story that matters and cares about the meaning of that question, and how we, as a species, might react to something as astonishing as the arrival of craft from another world. Arrival is an example of how stories should be adapted. Respecting the core ideas and respecting the underlying concepts of the originating work. The filmmakers took the detail and realism of the linguistics of the aliens as seriously as short-story writer Ted Chiang did – and they adapted this for the big screen understanding the needs of the visual medium. A beautiful hybrid that loses none of its power in translation. Arrival comes very highly recommended.