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).