Movie Review: Arrival

Amy Adams makes alien contact in Arrival

This may be one of the shortest movie reviews you'll ever read. Because to appreciate Arrival, a new movie in the 'first alien contact' sci-fi sub-genre, I think you're better off going in absolutely blind. Don't read reviews, don't watch the trailer, and don't read the short story it is based on. Just go.

Given the recommendation above, this 'review' will expand outwards from the most simple of statements, so if you haven't seen the movie I recommend reading as little as possible from the following. How far you read on should depend on how much encouragement or detail you need before going to see a movie. Obviously, the further you go down, the more spoilers are involved - so be warned.

So to start:

1. Go see it. Stop reading this now, and go see it.

2. Need more introductory detail about the movie? Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve - the guy behind the excellent Sicario and Prisoners - and is based on the acclaimed short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life. It stars award-winners Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Here's the synopsis, and trailer (there is also a separate international trailer). Note again though, I recommend not watching the trailers:

When multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team is put together to investigate, including language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Humankind teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers – and to find them, Banks, Donnelly and Weber will take a chance that could threaten their lives, and quite possibly humanity.

3. Need a feel for the movie? If you liked Contact, you will love Arrival. If you didn't like Contact, it will depend on what you didn't like about that movie as to whether you'll like Arrival. There are a *lot* of similarities between the movies - not just in the plot elements (first alien contact, female protagonist, family loss, weird time effects), but also the pacing...the 'slow burn' of getting to know the characters, and ponder how 'first contact' might play out. If Contact felt too slow for you, and you need lots of fast cuts and action scenes, this movie isn't for you.

4. Finally, my 'review' of Arrival, which again I'm going to keep short. I loved this movie. It's deeply intelligent sci-fi, with a real emotional heart to it. Amy Adams - who I haven't warmed to much in previous roles I've seen her in, is superb in the lead role of linguist Dr. Louise Banks. And it really is a lead role, almost solo. Even though Jeremy Renner shares plenty of screen-time as scientist Ian Donnelly, and is a crucial element of the story, this is entirely about Dr. Banks's journey, from her point-of-view.

Villeneuve handles the material beautifully. Extremely slow zooms build the tension and put you 'in' the moment, and Adams does plenty of 'to camera' interaction as she 'talks' to the aliens, allowing the audience to share her wonder, her confusion and so on through the slightest of facial movements (and hats off to Adams for pulling these very difficult scenes off wonderfully well). Villeneuve's ongoing collaboration with Icleandic soundtrack composer Jóhann Jóhannsson again works brilliantly, with the score hitting all the right notes (pardon the pun), from eerie drones to emotional orchestration.

Those who have read the short story by Ted Chiang will likely be concerned as to how closely the movie follows the plot and themes. While there are some changes - as is necessary in the transition to the screen - all in all the movie remains very faithful to the story. This movie really does dig deep into the structure and effects of language, and our modes of thinking, which I think are the central premises of Chiang's story.

However, I do think that having read the story will actually detract from enjoyment of the film, because it is that wonderful realisation around two thirds of the way through the movie that will likely make most viewers huge fans of this film. Having read the story myself, I think my appreciation of that moment was dimmed somewhat because I knew what was coming*. This is why I keep saying: go and see it without any background on the story. Without background, that particular moment will be a sublime experience.

On top of the pure enjoyment of watching this film, perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it is that for the few hours after leaving the cinema I had thoughts tumbling over each other in my head, about the nature of time, free will, and moral decision-making. Did Adams' character make the right choice? Could she have changed it if she wanted to? Just how much can we change our thought processes by changing our language? This, I think, is one of the hall-marks of great sci-fi: to get us thinking.

Arrival is wonderful. But you know that already don't you, because you stopped earlier, went and watched the movie and came back to read the rest of my thoughts from the future. Which I hope is the case, because that would be a fitting atemporal way to read a review of Arrival....

9 out of 10 alien glyphs

* (I'm not even sure I should tell you that was a bit of an in-the-know joke there).

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RicoYung's picture
Member since:
1 June 2004
Last activity:
14 weeks 1 day

Sorry, I watched it and was not particularly impressed, it's not a bad movie but just ok, I would give it a 7 out of 10 and that's being generous because it is a Sci-Fi movie (more like a 5 imo), I even tried to watch it a second time and couldn't watch for very long as I got kind of annoyed as it seemed kind of droll the second time... not even near "Contact" which is one of my fave movies.
There was something I found odd, the way the aliens human form would change back to alien form with the legs and knee being reversed and then jumping high distances reminded me of seeing that same effect in another movie or a Twilight Zone but cant remember which movie but I know I have seen that effect before, I'm just glad I didn't have to pay money to see it...watched on a free movie site :)
However...We all know (or should) that peoples tastes vary from person to person and my opinion is mine alone...some one else may like this as much as you do :P... Hey!... I like plan 9 from outer space (the old one) so there! :D

"We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." (Albert Einstein)

Greg's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
Last activity:
2 hours 30 min
RicoYung wrote:

Sorry, I watched it and was not particularly impressed, it's not a bad movie but just ok, I would give it a 7 out of 10 and that's being generous because it is a Sci-Fi movie (more like a 5 imo), I even tried to watch it a second time and couldn't watch for very long as I got kind of annoyed as it seemed kind of droll the second time... not even near "Contact" which is one of my fave movies.
There was something I found odd, the way the aliens human form would change back to alien form with the legs and knee being reversed...

I'm thinking you might have watched the 1996 Charlie Sheen film The Arrival, rather than the 2016 film Arrival...?

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

TRIPLESEVENSIX's picture
Member since:
24 July 2015
Last activity:
25 weeks 3 days

Well spotted. That is that crap old film with Charlie Sheen & not the new one with Amy Adams.

OUR SENTENCE IS UP....

RicoYung's picture
Member since:
1 June 2004
Last activity:
14 weeks 1 day

I am so sorry Greg, you are absolutely correct! My uber bad...And to make up for my bad I will go see this at my local theater :D
I have in my possession a ticket for 2 for the local theater that I got for a xmas gift from my employer last year (shows you how much I go to the theater)and I think it may still be playing there...I will post again after I see the newest. I am looking forward to see a good sci-fi...I need my sci-fi fix :D
How embarrassing...how embarrassing. "Yoda"

"We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." (Albert Einstein)

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 hour 37 min

The part that really baffled me was the explosives scene inside the rock. WTF?

jupiter.enteract's picture
Member since:
21 January 2005
Last activity:
2 weeks 6 days

I was very impressed by it (although the person I saw it with was pretty confused by it). It helps to know a little about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis quickly (and almost unintelligibly) alluded to in the movie by Amy Adams--the theory that language structures consciousness. IMO that really explains the whole concluding portion of the film (I won't say anything more than that). BTW - my favorite movie by the director is "Incendies"--pretty close to a masterpiece imo. If you/anyone hasn't seen it yet, put it at the top of your list--it'll knock your socks off.

jupiter.enteract's picture
Member since:
21 January 2005
Last activity:
2 weeks 6 days

It will be fascinating to see how he (Denis Villeneuve) handles the sequel to Blade Runner; his visual style and sense of pacing is great--much subtler than Spielberg's in some ways--so I'm hopeful. But can he live up to the high standard set by Ridley Scott with the first one? That remains to be seen.

Hugh G's picture
Member since:
29 November 2016
Last activity:
12 weeks 3 days

(I didn't read your full review until after viewing, thanks for the warning)
Really exrodinary film for me on many levels. The themes/questions Arrival explores are quite profound and ones I've contemplated throughout life. At the ripe age of 8 my first film obsession was 2001, still a favorite. Given my early love of Sci Fi, life long insatiable appetite around "the big questions" and love of Science, there was something quite Synchronistic about the movie for me. A little over two years ago our 13 year old Son Cameron died unexpectedly in his sleep. Horrific experience that has changed my life in ways I still don't fully grasp. I've been on an even stronger journey of exploration spiritually, philosophically and otherwise ever since. (Recently retired early from a successful career in the Investment Management business, I could could no longer ignore my lack of connection to my career) I have had a number of profound experiences prior to and following my sons death that have given me glimpses of the inon-linear, ineffable nature of time and the importance of "meaning" within conscious existence. Needless to say the loss element combined with nonlinear time in the film was quite striking for me personally.
Wanted to extend a sincere thank you for the work you do on this website.

Greg's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
Last activity:
2 hours 30 min
Hugh G wrote:

Needless to say the loss element combined with nonlinear time in the film was quite striking for me personally.
Wanted to extend a sincere thank you for the work you do on this website.

Cheers, I can imagine how the movie would have resonated deeply with you. Very sad to hear of your own loss, hope you're doing okay - appreciate you sharing your story with us.

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail