Film Review: Arrival

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Planet Earth is thrown into chaos when 12 mysterious, extra-terrestrial craft appear around the world. Their inhabitants want to talk, so it’s up to linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to decipher their language before global panic turns into inter-species war.

Arrival is a distinctly different kind of cosmic-encounter film – a cerebral puzzle that is a mesmerizing and fresh take on a genre that is too often overloaded with CGI effects and loud explosions.

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Denis Villeneuve continues to make amazing films. His films are patient, controlled, deliberate and extremely well crafted. The visuals of Arrival are extremely stark and elegant. The production design is sophisticated – all clean lines and vastness. The scenes inside the alien ship are transporting. After Louise and her team move through the ship’s portal, they end up in a large chamber facing a luminous screen through which they can see the aliens. Villeneuve’s superb cinematographer, Bradford Young (Selma), lingers on Amy Adams’ face, focusing on the value of human reaction to something eerie or wondrous.  It is awe-inspiring in its simplicity and grandeur. It is stunning.

The film is based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” an ambitious and absorbing story with meditations on the universe, life, time and space. The story was deemed difficult and “unfilmable”. Too cerebral and complicated to be transferred to film. Eric Heisserer has successfully adapted an effective and intelligent script without diminishing the magnificent scope of the original story.

The film is remarkably accessible, even when it tackles dense concepts that would normally be dumbed down in a studio film. Linguistics, physics, math and politics all come centre stage – with interpretation and language presenting the most pressing and complicated hurdle in understanding the alien visitors. Like all the best sci-fi, Arrival has something pertinent to say about today’s world; particularly about the importance of communication and understanding.

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The promise of overcoming that inability to communicate — not just with aliens, but with one another — is what lies at the heart of the film, and it’s an idea that’s brought forward most directly by Amy Adams’ performance. She is absolutely compelling in her struggle to understand the alien language, driven by shards of memories of her young daughter. Amy Adams plays a quiet hero – steady and smart – she is the heart of the film and one of the finest performances of the year.

Even with its contemplative themes, the threat of war and uncertainty hangs heavily over the characters – there is an air of dread on every discovery and success gained by the team of scientists and explorers.

Why are they here? What do they want? Are they a threat?

Villeneuve and his cast (including Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker) are excellent at balancing the emotional core of the film with incredible dramatic urgency.

Arrival is introspective, philosophical and intelligent – yet unfolds in an unwavering tenor of heart-stopping excitement. The revelation of the film is a fluid unwinding of everything you think you know – it hits you – dazzles you – astounds you – leaves you speechless.

Arrival asks extraordinarily grand science-fiction questions with remarkable emotional intelligence. Equal parts epic and intimate – it’s a beautifully executed film with heart and vulnerability that transcends its genre.

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