By: Samar Khan
Yes, Arrival is that darn good.
It’s been difficult for audiences to receive an instant sci-fi classic with great films such as Interstellar or Gravity having some pacing and/or plot issues keeping them from reaching that “classic” status. Joining the likes of Inception and Children of Men (go watch it, I cannot stress this enough) is Denis Villeneuve‘s latest film about an alien arrival that deviates entirely from your typical “alien invasion” tale and delivers a purely human and poignant film. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our review of one of 2016’s best films, Arrival.
The story is a tad complicated so bear with me as I attempt to provide a brief synopsis without delving into spoiler territory. Based off of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, it involves the US Military enlisting linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in order to communicate with an alien race that initiates contact with humanity at 12 points around the globe. The aliens have two ENTIRELY distinct forms of language (both spoken and written), with the latter being the central plot point of the story. This is a minor spoiler so be wary before proceeding: one’s perception of time changes when they grasp the written language of the aliens. That is all I shall say about the plot; suffice it to say, go watch it as nothing I say can do the film’s fantastic execution of it justice.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks and, in line with the rest of her career, is amazing. She truly is the female version of Leonardo DiCaprio, what with her fantastic performances always just falling short of the many Oscars nominations she garners every year (with a second possibility this year as well with Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals). She delivers an extremely powerful performance this time around as well, as someone that has experienced quite a bit in life (I can’t explain this adequately without spoiling the film) and yet is eager to understand this entirely new extraterrestrial species and its accompanying message. Adams perfectly balanced that pained soul and inquisitive nature of Banks and thus, in the eyes of myself and co-writer Muneeb Arshid, should once again garner acclaim come awards season.
Jeremy Renner plays her male counterpart, the mathematician/scientist enlisted by the military to help decrypt the aliens message. He plays his part to perfection, that of an intensely intelligent man with his quirks who bonds with Adams’ Banks over a mutual interest. Outside of what feels like an extremely shoehorned-in romance angle towards the end of the film (it was mostly natural but added in with some of the weirdest dialogue), he and the script do justice to one another and showcases his versatility as an actor.
The final major actor in the film is Forest Whitaker who plays US Military Colonel Weber. Whitaker’s Weber’s role decreases as the film goes on but he is vital as the piece that enlists the two leads and provides the human face of the US Military that is very often just a faceless or remorseless corporation in many films it appears in nowadays. The Oscar winner’s emoting has long been a strength of his and whether it comes to displaying anger or expressing remorse at different points in the film, he is up to par as per usual. The remainder of the supporting cast is more than adequate in their roles, with the considerable lack of big names somehow making the film more immersive, as audiences would focus less on the actors and more on the characters appearing throughout the film.
As Villeneuve’s Sicario and Prisoners showcased in years past, it’s not just the actors or the script that make his films must-see entertainment. He rounds out his films with top-notch visuals and sound, both on display once again. Beginning with the visuals, just take a glance at the photo of the heptapod at the beginning of the review. Look at this following image:
Amazing, right? Major credit, of course, goes to cinematographer Bradford Young, who more than aptly replaces the exceptional work of Roger Deakins‘ from Villeneuve’s previous Sicario and frames everything perfectly.
The sound by Jóhann Jóhannsson was, simply put, exceptional. Haunting when it needed to be, melodramatic when it needed to be and it somehow managed to be inquisitive at the same time as scenes appeared that asked the audiences to examine closely. Each frame in the film had the appropriate sound for it which is amazing to think about. If there was a weakness in the sound, and this is extremely minor, it has to be that there was nothing as immensely powerful and daunting as the sound (or sometimes, the lack of sound) that accompanied the Mexico scenes in Villeneuve’s Sicario. It’s unfair to expect any film to match that level of amazing sound for an entire film but for how well the unique sound was used in Arrival, I would not consider the latter film’s sound a weakness by any stretch.
Dr. Banks linguistics background is key here and one of the stars of the show. We are treated to the process required to understand a different language and also on how one must phrase each segment of a sentence so that the other party in a conversation can understand the exact meaning of what is being asked. I can confidently say that this is the first time a film -0r anything, really- has made me actually consider pursuing linguistics further, just because of the way Arrival delves into what makes the understanding of a language simultaneously difficult and exciting when breakthroughs do occur.
Nearly every person that I communicated with following the film relayed the same message to me: the film deserves additional kudos for taking an alien invasion story and being willing to go in a different direction with it. Who would have thought that a film centered around understanding an alien language to decipher essential messages, with zero action and minimal screen-time by the aliens, could still be so powerful? The film examines themes of linguistic relativity (integral to the story) and determinism which are somehow used extremely well and make the audience feel as if they learned something.
Go watch the film! It’s something that I recommend everyone experiences for how intelligently it treats its audience and for how it is different from what came before it. Denis Villeneuve continues to sizzle as a director (I’m salivating imagining how great his Blade Runner  will be) and both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner shine. Arrival isn’t just one of the best movies of the year but is one of the best sci-fi films of all time, which is praise that we don’t give out easily.
We here at The Film Lawyers are extremely proud to grace Arrival with a grade of A (9.0/10).