The Performances & Visuals Hide The Flaws In “Arrival”

This intelligent science fiction film has “arrived” to great expectation and a fanfare of five-star reviews. This expectation can sometimes place an unfair pressure on the film, and for me the result is a mixed bag.

The Performances & Visuals Hide The Flaws In Arrival is based on “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, a short story that tackles the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; don’t worry I had no idea what this hypothesis was until reading about it after seeing the film. The story starts with our main protagonist, the seemingly emotionally drained linguistics professor, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) having her lecture interrupted as the world in thrown into chaos by the arrival of 12 mysterious extra-terrestrial crafts. She is then recruited by Forest Whitaker’s gruff Colonel Weber along with Jeremy Renner’s physicist, Ian Donnelly, to try to decipher the alien’s mind-bending language before global panic sparks an inter-species war.

Firstly, the film looks great, director Denis Villeneuve, as with Sicario and Prisoners, has shaken up a familiar genre with a thought-provoking and stylish manner. The Blade Runner sequel seems to be safe in his capable hands. The opening act is almost perfect, building tension and character accompanied by Johann Johannsons’ unnerving score. The first trip into the alien craft is deftly captured by our protagonist’s face and the visuals are equally disturbing and awe-inspiring. In the craft the rules of gravity are stunningly realised, but this scene then abruptly ends to move the story along, hitting some of my initial problems with the film. To keep things moving the film uses a voiceover montage, containing a great Sheena Easton joke, but compared to other aspects this is a lazy narrative device as is the reliance on the clichéd news channel updates of world events. At its best the film is toying with your expectation of cinematic convention and treating the audience with respect, allowing you to see the story unfold rather than being force-fed.

The Performances & Visuals Hide The Flaws In

The biggest positive is Amy Adams, this is her film, this must be her Oscar moment as the emotion of the film is carried by her face and reactions. When the final act perspective alteration occurs it’s her performance that carries the audience through. The supporting cast are reliably good, but don’t really get a look in. Adam’s character explaining the difficulty in getting the heptapod aliens to understand one simple sentence is a delight as it becomes clear it will not be an easy task to turn the creatures’ subtitles on. There are a few moments of humour and levity that quickly disappear as the narrative flirts with the boundaries of what the audience will accept. It is a film that takes itself very seriously and ultimately it deserves to. The comparisons with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day The Earth Stood Still are inevitable, but it does feels fresh.

My biggest problem with the film would be to discuss major spoilers. The central idea is well crafted, but character and species motivations become clouded and not explained to a satisfying degree. When there is a major shift in perspective I was not clear why the perspective wasn’t changed for more characters. I also found character motivations to ultimately be extremely selfish and an alternative view is never fully explored. The biggest flaw for me personally is whilst I enjoyed the many merits of this film I have no urgent desire to see it again.

So, I am going to be brave and buck the trend, I would recommend seeing it, but it’s far from a five-star masterpiece. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I am not high-brow enough in my film tastes, but the performance and visuals aren’t enough to overcome the story flaws for me. Am I the only person to be left a little cold by this film and not naming this my film of the year?

arrival review three stars

Written by Lyndon Wells

The Performances & Visuals Hide The Flaws In Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Released: 2016 / Genre: Science-Fiction
Country: USA / IMDB

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About the Author
A film geek and cinephile masquerading as a Doctor, husband and father. With my dog Bilbo by my side I seek to prescribe a healthy movie experience through accurate diagnostics. Find me on Twitter: @lwellsfilm

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  1. Dan Grant Reply

    Great review.

    I enjoyed it, didn’t understand all of it at first, then had some therapy with other people had seen it, and then once I understood all of it, liked it quite a bit. I did find the aliens motivation to be a bit strange and I wasn’t happy with the Lost in Translation rip off scene at the end (Adams and the Chinese leader whisper). I’d give it a 9/10. Still a great film but not perfect.

    • Lyndon Wells Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it more than I did, my expectations were very high. The build up was far superior to the final explanation, I’m more on the 6-7/10 rating, I know I should watch it again but the desire just isn’t there which also effected my final rating.
      Tough review to write without going deep into spoilers but agree aliens motivation strange and why don’t more characters get the same perspective shift once they understand the alien language? And the flashback twist felt too saccharin like the Interstellar love transcending time and space speech.

    • Lyndon Wells Reply

      Ps Thanks – interesting review to write as felt I was going against the flow on this one!

  2. Lisa Key Reply

    I loved it. It has a bit of Contact about it as well as Close Encounters but still felt unique. I’m not sure I’d consider myself high brow but it has enough about it that actually made me want to watch it again.

    • Lyndon Wells Reply

      There was a lot of Contact within if and I agree it dos feel unique. Personally I just didn’t love it enough to want to see it again. The best films for me I could watch again straight away. The ‘high brow’ comment was a bit tongue in cheek but I was searching for reasons why this didn’t meet the 5 star expectations.

      It’s a very admirable film but the message was very on the nose and the resolution unsatisfactory. I found the opening 30mins almost perfect and then it struggled to maintain that standard.

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