TL;DR – A beautiful story of loss, change, the role of language, and how it’s better to work together than apart, a movie we kind of need at the moment.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Review – Arrival, based on the short story by Ted Chiang, is a really interesting movie as it looks at issues that are not usually covered in science fiction or indeed movies in general. It is a fascinating look into language and its role in shaping culture and society but also what happens when the unknown actually happens and how do we respond to that. While I loved Arrival its one of those movies that I think will be quite polarising as you may indeed find it either meditative or ponderous, I myself fall into the first camp.
So what happens when twelve alien ships appear at random places across the world from Greenland to Sudan to Pakistan to China to Montana, well first sheer panic, and then what happens if they just sit there doing nothing, well more panic really. However, what happens if they open their doors every eighteen hours and you can go in, but everyone else is doing that at other sites and it is a race to see who makes contact first. So the question then becomes do you share information with the other countries or do you hoard it all for yourself but then get cut out of the loop. Now these are the questions I find fascinating, how would we respond in such a situation would we work together share our information ala liberalism or indeed do we take the selfish route and horde our information ala realism because who knows, maybe they are a threat, or maybe they are looking to sell weapons.
While I have not seen any of director Denis Villeneuve’s work before I did hear good things about Sicario, but wow, he had me hooked with just that opening pan. One of the things I do really like in movies is framing and in today cut heavy editing it’s something that gets lost along with moments of pause, but here both of these techniques are used to convey emotion and longing. That shot of Louise’s (Amy Adams) office with those big windows looking out over the lake, becomes a nexus point for the film as it tackles the past, present and future, and a shot that gets repeated throughout the movie in different ways. Just from a filmography perspective this film is stunning, that shot of the ship in Montana as the clouds pour down the hills might be one of the most beautiful things I have seen on screen this year. For me, I liked the slow burn of this moving with its pacing, but I think this is something that will put some people off, especially if you are expected a heavy action film, and this is not that. I liked it because it gave us time to get to know the characters their pasts, and how it affects their work, it also allowed the frustration and tension to build and build, with that thought that it could all go to ruin at any moment. I also liked the use and in some cases, the absence of music throughout Arrival, Jóhann Jóhannsson score at times has an ethereal quality to it but also at times it blasts out at you to reinforce the disorientation the characters are going through. This is coupled with the moment where there is not music and we just have the sounds of breathing, or jets screeching across the sky, or indeed that bird chirping to give the audience the feelings of tension or the unreal quality of what is going on.
The story of Arrival can be a punch in the gut at times, that opening narrative brings all the feels, and I don’t have any children so I can’t even imagine the effect on those who do. Part of why the story works as well as it does is one how the structure the film to give you a growing knowledge of what is happening but also to the conviction of the performances. Amy Adams gives one of the performances of her career, she is living with the death of her daughter but she is the expert on translating languages so the government needs her to work on this project. Indeed it is this theme of motherhood that is so compelling throughout the film, which strangely you don’t see many films actually engage with. This is such an interesting dynamic to the film and it sets Arrival apart for many of its contemporaries. The one thing I would say is less tickle monster, please. The rest of the supporting cast works well from the endearing Jeremy Renner (Ian) to the ‘I would not want to mess with’ Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber). If the rapport between Ian and Louise had not worked this movie would be a failure, but the interplay between the mathematician and the linguist was fascinating to watch.
I also liked the special effects with both the creation of the ships but also in the alien design. The heptapods we fascinating with their grace like movements, where you are not sure if they are flying through the atmosphere, or swimming in liquid, or a little of both. The ability to give them personality and an interesting design in a crowded genre is quite an achievement. Also, the representations of their language were always interesting to watch.
This being said there were a couple of things that did not quite work as well as they could have. Now we are going to get into a couple of small story issues here, so [SPOILERS ENGAGED] for the rest of this chapter. First, at some points in the film, it becomes quite obvious that we are only showing you this scene because it will be important for later in the film, like the random background solder that we just so happen to listen to a conversation with his wife that is concerned that the aliens are going to kill everyone. Also, the very ending of the ending does not quite hold up with regards to the alien motivation. But these are only very small critiques in what is a fantastic film.
I really liked Arrival, it had a strong cast, it dealt with interesting themes, and overall had a compelling narrative. In the end, Arrival asks the question is it better to work together or apart and frankly, after this week it’s a message I think more people should think about.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by – Eric Heisserer
Based on – Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
Music by – Jóhann Jóhannsson
Starring – Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg & Tzi Ma
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; NZ: M; UK: 12A; USA: PG13