Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Abigail Pniowsky, and Tzi Ma
Synopsis: A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
Based on the short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (which I haven’t read so I’m basing this review off the film), Arrival is directed by one of my new favorite directors in Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario). The film had me hooked from the teaser trailer, and the film has been on my watch-list for a while and then hearing all the positive word of mouth from film festival and critics, I was finally happy to go watch it. While Arrival takes a while to get going, the film is definitely going to be one of those films you either get invested in or want to stay away from.
The film follows renowned linguist Dr. Louise Brooks (Adams), who is brought in by the government, more specifically Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker), to attempt to learn and decipher the language of the aliens that have just arrived on Earth. However, the aliens stay in the oval alien ships, called Shells by the government, so with a team that also includes scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner), they must figure out a way to communicate with the aliens before the world takes matters into their own hands.
The plot synopsis there is a bit vague, and for a reason, since I don’t want to give too much away plot and story-wise. In fact, the less you know about Arrival the better. Thankfully the trailers and ads haven’t given too much away, so you can go in and just enjoy the ride the film lays out for you. However, you should know this film despite being an “aliens coming to Earth” film, this is a drama. So don’t go in expecting a random shootout or aliens running wild through New York (even though New York is never shown in the film). That being said, I liked the fact that the film is just a drama, and it really all lands on the leads.
Amy Adams is also someone you can rely on because you know she’s giving it all in her performances, and she does the same here. The film rests on her shoulders, similar to how Louise probably feels in the film. Everyone is counting on her and Ian to come up with some way to figure out a language that no one has seen before. Adams is pretty much in every shot in the film, and for good reason.
When it comes to the rest of the cast, they do their part. Jeremy Renner has his moments, and for a good part of the film is like the audience in he’s in both awe and excited to meet aliens for the first time. Forest Whitaker plays the straight-laced, no-nonsense army colonel, but other than that he doesn’t really do much, but having Whitaker in your film never hurts. Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s someone you should get to remembering, plays an agent who comes and goes throughout the film and is somewhat antagonist to Louise and Ian, but for good reason. He’s basically everyone else in the world saying what if the aliens just decide to attack. Stuhlbarg also disappears from the film for a while, but when he appears his scenes carry weight.
One thing that, again, will divide people from potentially watching the film is Arrival is a drama, but more importantly a sci-fi film – there are aliens after all. The characters and film bring up interesting, thoughtful, and important questions that – if this really happened – we would hope anyone involved would ask and try to figure out. The film has things to unpack, but not enough to overwhelm you or make you wonder for long. The other nice thing is the film never tries to talk down or dumb things down for the viewer, which the film could have easily done, and I’m glad that writer Eric Heisserer didn’t do so.
Also, for a film devoted to language, the film also – to steal a line that I read somewhere – speaks the language of film. The cinematography by Bradford Young is fantastic, especially the shot we get when Louise and Ian first see the Shell from a distance and the rolling in fog coming in from the mountains. The visual effects that combine with the production design are pretty top notch, and are mostly on display in the Shell with the aliens. Speaking of the aliens, their design is rather interesting to say the least, I won’t go into how they look, but the design was something I was not expecting. Finally, the score by Johann Johansson (who did the score for Sicario) really puts you in the state of mind of the characters and the environment. There are parts that equal fear and dread, but also moments of wonder.
All in all, Arrival will not be for everyone. In fact, I’m sure most will be heavily divided on the film. However, that doesn’t take away anything from everyone involved. Arrival takes the sci-fi alien genre and turns it on its head to full and great effect. The film could require multiple viewings to find deeper meanings and fully embrace the concepts and final act, but overall, Arrival is a film that will leave you leaving the theater and talking about it all the way home.
4.5 out of 5