Review: Arrival

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer, based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Summary: Linguist professor Louise Banks is brought in by the U.S. military to help communicate with aliens that have made their first contact with Earth. International tensions rise and Louise is under pressure find answers about the aliens and about herself.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Arrival but it wasn’t this. From the outside it looks like a potentially interesting movie about aliens, but it turns out to be far more complex than that.

I think the less you know about the plot of Arrival, the more you’ll enjoy this film, so I’m going to try and stay away from specific scenes and plot points, but I have to spend some time praising it because it hit me like a freight train and it was beautifully done. Denis Villeneuve is a fantastic French Canadian director who has been stepping into the spotlight the last few years with highly acclaimed films like Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. I was excited to see what he would do after Sicario, and Arrival completely exceeded my expectations.

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Bradford Young is the cinematographer and I really love what he did with Arrival, it looks beautiful. (Bradford Young was also the cinematographer for Selma, and the photography was definitely the best part of that movie.) The cinematography is striking  but not distracting and helps to establish a very specific tone that is vital to keeping the audience engaged with the story properly. As much as Arrival is about the spectacle of a foreign species coming to the Earth it is also about the life experiences of Louise (Amy Adams). The shots are often framed tight onto her face or even the back of her head, so everything feels very intimate.

Arrival walks a very thin line. Any step in the wrong direction could have easily made it a lesser film, so a LOT of credit goes to the editor, Joe Walker. Joe Walker worked on 12 Years a Slave and Shame and his style from those two films carries over into Arrival quite a bit. The edit of Arrival dictates the emotional weight of the film and Joe Walker lined everything up perfectly to deliver that.

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The sound and score are also incredibly important. The sound editors created some incredible sounds to give some kind of “voice” to the aliens, the ambient sound within the vessel itself was very cool. These sounds were mixed very well with the fantastic score written by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s not a flashy score, but it is very effective in matching the tone of the visuals. Just to clarify, the beautiful orchestral piece that plays in the opening and closing scenes is not from Jóhannsson; this is a piece called “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter. You’ve probably heard this song, it’s been featured in a few different films including Disconnect and Shutter Island and Richter does the score for The Leftovers and the currently airing Taboo on FX. It’s a memorable piece because it is so emotionally manipulative, and I mean that in the best way.

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The first time I saw Arrival I’m not sure I realized how vital Amy Adams was to telling this story. She is very, very good in this film. She’s had much bigger performances, but she plays Louise as brilliant and confident, with just a touch of sadness and is always willing to expose a tender vulnerability. This could have been a very, very different film with a different actress and she carries the role perfectly. The rest of the cast does a fine job, but Amy Adams did something really special in Arrival.

I know I’m slobbering all over this movie, but it wasn’t perfect. The story itself is very cool and the way it’s told is very original, but the script does fall into a few pits here and there. Some of the dialog is a little uninspired and there are moments when it falls victim to certain sci-fi movie tropes, but those moments are usually redeemed by an amazing visual or an remarkable performance from Amy Adams. This was a very tight script. At a running time just shy of two hours, I can only thing of one plot element involving some rogue U.S. soldiers that could have been cut, and even that did serve some narrative purpose. There’s an important scene near the end that felt a little off; there’s just a moment of bad CGI and the scene itself is actually really important, I just wish it had been done a bit differently.

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Arrival could have easily walked down a much simpler path than it took. It could have been an exciting alien movie about one person’s struggle to understand an incredibly complicated foreign language. Instead, it has this dark, emotional undertone that doesn’t quite make sense until you get to the climax of the film when it delivers a massive punch to the gut. I did not see this coming at all, and it’s the kind of reveal that makes you see everything you’ve watched up to that point from a different perspective. This is definitely a film that benefits from a second viewing because knowing the ending will likely change the way you see parts of the preceding events. I won’t go into detail, but Arrival also explores the themes of non-linear time, a topic I find particularly fascinating. It doesn’t go into Interstellar depths of scientific inquiry but it will raise some questions in your mind that are very difficult to answer.

Arrival also has an overtone of global cooperation and anti-xenophobia that feel incredibly relevant right now.

Final Verdict: A-
Arrival is a slam dunk. It checks almost all of the boxes for great filmmaking and I felt deeply connected to it and invested in the main character (this is where La La Land fell short). I think it’s a film that regular filmgoers and cinema snobs will enjoy. Because the script had a few disappointing moments that seemed easily avoidable I can’t call it the best film of the year. But, seeing this when it first came out back in October, it was definitely the first great movie I’d seen in 2016.


Oscar Consideration

Nominated for…
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing

I actually was a little disappointed to see that Amy Adams wasn’t nominated for this performance. An intimate, precise performance is sometimes better than a flashier, more dramatic role and it would have been nice to see the Academy acknowledge that. Arrival also got snubbed in the Best Original Score category. Jóhann Jóhannsson definitely should have been nominated for this score. I think La La Land will probably sweep most of these categories, so I can’t predict that it will go home with a bunch of Oscar gold next month, but I think the nominations alone speak to the quality of the movie. I think there’s some potential for it to win Best Editing and maybe Sound Editing.

Won…
Best Sound Editing

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