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Arrival (2016)

At last! I finally got to see Arrival, the sci-fi movie directed by Prisoners and Sicario (and soon Blade Runner 2049) filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Of all the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year, Arrival was hands down the one I wanted to see above all others. Villeneuve is a master at creating atmosphere, tension, and stunning visuals, and I couldn’t wait to see what he could do with a film based on an award-winning science fiction story.

With expectations that high, I almost anticipated disappointment as I walked into the darkened cinema today. I intentionally avoided most of the trailers and all reviews so nothing will be spoiled, though I did hear a throwaway line in a podcast that revealed a little too much for my liking. Still, I felt like I knew little enough to make the experience fresh and unencumbered.

When I walked out of Arrival, I was speechless. I didn’t say anything more than a couple of words for quite a long time. My mind just couldn’t stop spinning and thinking about what I had watched and what it all meant. It’s 116 minutes long but I felt like I could watch another 116 minutes of it. I have no doubt I will be thinking about the film for days and I can’t wait to watch it again. It’s a thinking-person’s sci-fi movie—my favourite kind.

The plot is very simple. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a top linguist who is contacted by the US government when mysterious alien crafts suddenly appear around the world with no apparent agenda. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) plays physicist Ian Connelly, while Forest Whitaker plays an US Army colonel. The film takes quite a realistic approach to what would happen in the event of an alien arrival event, providing its own subtle takes on government relations, societal reactions, religious beliefs and individual emotions.

The film is absolutely stunning to look at. I was very excited about the visuals of this movie after seeing Sicario, and though Arrival has a different cinematographer (Bradford Young, who was the DP for Selma; Roger Deakins was the DP for Sicario), the look is nonetheless beautiful. I’m not talking about just the special effects, which are seamless, but the landscapes and Villeneuve’s use of camera angles and focus. I’m very surprised the film was not nominated for Best Cinematography.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Arrival is some kind of alien invasion blockbuster. It’s a much more contemplative film where the pace is very measured. There was a section of the movie after the initial contact that felt a little slow and had me worried about where the narrative was heading, but fortunately, it soon got out of that rut and dragged me into its world. Before long, Arrival developed one of the most immersive film experiences I’ve had in years. I became completely lost in its story, characters and intrigue. There are so many fascinating little revelations and twists and turns — not all of them are shocking or unpredictable, but even the ones I could see coming nonetheless sent chills through my body.

The performances are, as expected, wonderful. Amy Adams should have been nominated for her portrayal, which carried the film from start to finish and was full of raw, nuanced emotion. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all solid in supporting roles. I imagine much of the acting from Adams and Renner came in front of green screens, which only makes their performances more remarkable.

The closest film I can compare Arrival to is the 1997 classic Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. Both are very personal sci-fi films that are fantastic at creating intrigue — they show enough to whet the appetite and satisfy your curiosity, but not too much so that the sense of mystery remains in tact. Both films are also very philosophical and emotional. I like how they don’t explain everything and leave the audience with unanswered questions and room for open-ended interpretations.

In the end, Arrival turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped it would be, albeit via an experience that was very different to what I had expected. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately very moving and heartbreaking. It is definitely one of movies on my list of favourite films of 2016 — the only question is whether it’s at the very top.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: The film isn’t perfect though. Apart from that slow patch I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the Chinese general character played by veteran Asian actor Tzi Ma. The big blunder the film makes is that the head of the People’s Liberation Army should actually also be the President of China (and also the General Secretary of the Communist Party). Also, as hard as Amy Adams tried, her Mandarin pronunciation was poor,