Arrival arrives at just the right time to make us pause and think.
It feels like it’s been quite some time since a thought-provoking science-fiction film has come along — one that makes you really think. Now, before you come to the conclusion that “more thinking” equals “less entertaining”, think again! Arrival is a spectacular blend of drama, suspense, intelligence, and engaging visuals. Arrival also employs sound and music in an interesting way, aiding in the gradual fusion of the viewer experience with that of the characters. Once you emerge from the 118 minute cinematic trance you’ve been pulled into, you’ll realize that you’ve sat through one of the better films of the last year. And that realization, somehow, will be the same whether you loved the film or hated it.
Arrival opens with the introduction of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist troubled by memories of personal loss. When extra-terrestrial pods “land” in locations across the globe, there’s widespread confusion and panic. Within a few days, Louise is recruited by the military, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), to join theoretician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating the alien communications. Funnily enough, the plot henceforth follows along the path of many alien arrival films and yet while watching it, it feels anything but formulaic. Rounding out the main cast of characters is CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlberg). Agent Halpern and Colonel Weber provide a small dose of the military ineptitude we’re used to seeing in films (ya know, where the military personnel don’t have a clue about anything while the main characters teach them everything they should know at every juncture). Thankfully, this frustrating genre commonality is played to a minimal degree. Arrival is actually more realistic than most of its genre. At least that’s what I gathered through one viewing, and likely will again upon my second helping.
Then, there are the conceptual facets of Arrival. It’s been a few days after the screening and my mind is still mulling it over. There are loose ends and small yet significant details that eventually find a home within the untangling web of discoveries and facts in the story, but not all of them stick their landing. Arrival recalls the visual panache of Interstellar, the dramatic personal depth of Contact, and the wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With the election results (and immediate backlash) of November 8th fresh in our minds, some of the political commentary in Arrival hits hard and adds some immediacy to the conflict. The theme of global division is handled with care, even as it escalates and adds to the suspense. It’s not completely unreasonable that the studio would wish to release Arrival a few short days after the presidential election, knowing full well that the themes would be part of the national (and global) discourse. That being said, be warned that it’ll raise some political frustrations, but also some glimmers of hope and positivity.
And now for a few more remarks about the little but powerful characteristics that make Arrival one of the best films of the year. The computer generated effects are utilized sparingly at first, then more towards the middle and end, but always for maximum effect and not for superfluous spectacle. The music and sounds blend together to the point that you sometimes can’t distinguish between the alien sounds and the score. The latter which is brilliantly composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The direction from Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) is tight and effortless. Aside from one very lousy, out-of-place line of dialogue near the end, the script from Eric Heisserer, adapted from a short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is smart, engrossing, and well-paced. But again, it’s the combination of all these elements that elevate Arrival above the normal science-fiction fare and provide a worthwhile experience that you’ll want to talk about — including your frustrations with it, your heartfelt feelings about it, and your excitement about it. And that’s why Arrival is so incredibly timely — at a time when we need to really think and really talk more, this movie offers a reason to.
Arrival arrives in theaters Friday, Nov. 11th.