The Brilliant “Arrival” Is An Intimate Canvas On Which To Paint Big Ideas

Arrival is a marvellous piece of pure sci-fi, a smart and intriguing film that beautifully finds a small, intimate canvas on which to paint its big ideas. Dan Stephens takes a closer look at one of 2016’s best films…

The Performances & Visuals Hide The Flaws In If we didn’t know it already, low-fi sci-fi Arrival puts filmmaker Denis Villeneuve in the same “big” league as ultra-consistent stylist Christopher Nolan. The pair have conspired to offer an alternative type of mainstream Hollywood entertainment that dares to defy convention and expectation through the careful massaging of high concept cinematic attractions.

It’s a consistency that has seen audience favourites such as The Dark Knight, Inception and The Prestige (from Nolan) and Sicario, Prisoners and now Arrival (from Villeneuve) offer big box office potential sans piecemeal melodrama so often the default gear of production line cinema. From origins in the arthouse (Following and Polytechnique) to reaching bigger audiences with indie hits (Memento and Incendies), the rise of Nolan and Villeneuve has plenty in common.

Not least their subversion of expectation and courage to ask audiences to think for themselves. Now both have tackled pure science-fiction with the smarts, inclination and imagination to put discovery at the heart of their narrative. But like all the best sci-fi films, the journey into new territory brings with it more questions than answers and both filmmakers are at pains to let the viewer make up his or her mind.

Arrival sees Amy Adams’ Louise Banks become the USA’s ambassador to an alien species recently arrived on earth. Her standing as a linguistics whizz sees her rather thrust into the job by an American government eager to get a head start on communications ahead of other countries around the world who have their own alien visitors. As Louise makes some progress, national and international tensions rise as suspicion, fear, political motivation and religious doctrine threaten to derail a seemingly peaceful “first contact”.

The Performances & Visuals Hide The Flaws In

Villeneuve is adept at enticement through his expert handling of the mechanics of drama. He’s also brilliant at twisting plot development to divert away from conventional expectation. His talent allows him to do this in a number of ways; be it the eloquent quirks of mise en scene (Banks’ entry into the spacecraft makes interesting use of gravitational fluctuations), subversive use of storytelling technique such as flashback, or the simple framing in mid-shot of a character’s expression.

Indeed, Arrival looks and sounds divine. Cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson deserve to be applauded, their combined efforts simultaneously marvelling at beauty and unsettling through a sense of the unknown. They complement one of Amy Adams’ finest performances as a university professor unwittingly called upon in mankind’s potentially defining moment while continuing to be haunted by the premature loss of her young daughter to an incurable disease.

She represents an ideal for humanity – selfless, courageous, caring, smart – but one defined by the human condition, a sense of loss, guilt and powerlessness weighing on her shoulders. Louise Banks is a character almost as intriguing as the ambiguity surrounding the aliens’ motivation for landing on earth. It is the balance between the two that makes Arrival consistent in intrigue, evidently invigorating the edge-of-your-seat thrills usually reserved for more generic offerings. In fact, Villeneuve uses enigmatic character study – of those of and beyond our world – to immerse us in this fascinating journey.

Miraculously, the film, which is based on Ted Chiang’s novella (first published in 1998), takes a complicated subject (in this case the use, development and implementation of language) and makes what could be a lecture to postgrads interesting for audiences not privy to the various levels of centre-embedded clauses, free word order and semagrams. Indeed, the details are less important than the overarching theme: which is how we communicate. This takes on a much more recognisable guise as world powers first share information then decide to isolate themselves as suspicion between nations grows.

At its core, Arrival is a film with ideas, imagination and purpose. Its multi-layered “us and them” motif invigorates the senses, transcending mere metaphor. Significantly, as a film following in the footsteps of so many similarly themed alien contact/invasion movies, it finds a unique niche, unhurried pace and melancholic tone that clearly distinguishes it. It’s a marvellous piece of pure sci-fi, a smart and intriguing film that beautifully finds a small, intimate canvas on which to paint its big ideas.

arrival, film review, five stars

Written by Dan Stephens

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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Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Lyndon Wells Reply

    Great, well written review.

    I agree Villeneuve is on a good run, Prisoners is a great film but he isn’t quite comparable to Nolan for me yet. He is definitely the right person to take on a Blade Runner Sequel.

    I also agree the cinematography and texture of the film is very impressive.

    However I cannot explain my shortcomings and frustrations with the film without going into spoilers so SPOILERS ahead:

    The aliens motivation is ultimately strange and unclear, their humanity to somehow benefit them in thousands of years is just brushed over.

    Why doesn’t Jeremy Renner’s physicist get the same perspective shift once they understand the alien language? Would that not affect his decision to have a baby?

    The apparent flashbacks being flash-forwards was a telegraphed twist/reveal that makes character motivation earlier in the film unclear. At the beginning of the film why was Amy Adams so miserable? Why would she just go into work whilst the world was in turmoil? It is not because of the reason the audience is sold as they are flash forwards and she is yet to have the concept of time challenged. This felt like a device to trick the audience these were flashbacks and hide that they hadn’t actually happened yet.

    After the big reveal the film becomes very saccharin and sweet like the Interstellar ‘love transcending time and space’ speech, Arrival uses lines likes ‘let’s make a baby’.

    Ultimately given what Amy Adams’ character knows about her family’s future aren’t her motivations very selfish especially if she doesn’t tell her future husband, does he have no choice because her character demands that experience even if it is too painful for him.

    All this is brushed over for the flash forward reveal and a very on the nose world peace and getting on with each other message. The film trumps its challenge of the concept of time over human motivations. Something which the Jodie Foster film Contact did not which is why I think that is a superior film.

    For me a film cannot masquerade as a high concept sci-fi without also taking the effort to explore the array of motivations and character choices the plot demands especially the underwritten and underserved Jermey Renner.

    It’s not a bad film, but the more I think about it the more it frustrates me. I love the linguistic aspect and the old-fashioned ideas based sci-fi concept but the flaws I have listed means it is not a 5 star film for me.

  2. Dan Reply

    I think it’s great the film has got people talking. I can’t say I had any problem with potential plot holes; I think the Alien visit is purposefully ambiguous and perhaps the answers lie in future viewings. Their need for humanity’s help in 3,000 years is good enough for me, for now.

    I must admit to not recognising the flash forwards as flashbacks so that was a worthy twist.

    As for the fact others didn’t seemingly get the visions of the future, Banks was the one who made the connection with the aliens more than any other. It’s plausible she was targeted, it’s plausible others could learn the technique, it’s plausible that during the duration of the film no one else had experienced the “gift”, it’s plausible that others did but we didn’t see it directly.

    What it did establish is a very unsentimental ending: a sort of acceptance of fate perhaps? Is the gift less a “gift” and more a curse?? The ability to know what’s going to happen is helpful if you can change the present to better the future. She does that with the call to China but goes through with a pregnancy she knows will end in tragedy. Does that make her a monster or someone who wants to give a child a taste of life? The only way she could affect this tragedy is by denying her daughter any life at all. Is some life better than none at all? I’m not pretending to have the definitive answer on that.

    It’s quite open ended and one of the reasons it worked for me.

  3. Lyndon Wells Reply

    Sorry for posting twice previously was writing it on the train.

    Arrival also failed the Mrs Wells test, she did not enjoy that cinema trip, and you can feel someone else not enjoying a film sat next to you, it affects your enjoyment of it!

    What do you think of the film Contact?

    Really interesting how we had different reactions to the final third but still appreciate the film’s many merits. I can’t get past the lack of character for poor Jeremy Renner and the ambuiguity of the ‘gift’ only being used by Banks in the film.

    I often enjoy an open ended through provoking sci-fi but clearly overall this frustrated more than yourself.

    I didn’t find the ending itself sentimental but the script became very saccharin towards the end especially between the future couple. The ‘work with each other’ and world peace message was very obvious though.

    I don’t think a definitive answer is required but more development of the motivation perhaps at the weight of this decision regarding her daughter is hers alone.

  4. Dan Reply

    Contact’s one of my favourite films.

    I love its sense of awe at the universe (through Ellie’s devotion to her profession and she’s presented as this tiny part of the endlessness of space, and perhaps the endlessness of “possibility”).

    It celebrates imagination for me – similar to other Zemeckis films like Back To The Future, Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, Cast Away – and has this wonderful sense of anticipation that keeps me glued to the screen – the search, the find, the discovery of the space port/vehicle/transporter plans, the build up to tragedy, the second machine, the whats ifs of space travel, the alien meet…

    If I did a top 100 favourite films I think Contact would be in it alongside Back To The Future from director Bob Zemeckis.

    I think the jury is out on Renner being under-utilised/under-developed. I’d agree that he’s a smaller part of the film despite being a major part of the research team and a vital cog in the film’s plot twist. But did I need to see more of him for Louise’s story to work as well as it did… I’m not sure I did. But as I say, the jury’s out on that one.

  5. Lyndon Wells Reply

    Love your description of Contact’s exploration of possibility and Zemeicks celebration of imagination. That is spot on – just rewatched Back to the Future again, cannot wait until my kids are old enough to watch and appreciate that film with me!.
    Perhaps a future Top10- films I can’t wait to show my kids!

    • Dan Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Lyndon.

      I love that idea for a top 10!

      The ones that quickly come to mind for me: Back To The Future, The Goonies and, actually, a whole host of 80s teen/fantasy/adventure/sci-fi!

    • Dan Reply

      This was a top 10 I did a while ago called Top 10 Films Of A Ten Year Old.

      I basically envisaged what my “all time” top 10 would be if I was able to speak to my ten-year-old self. 🙂

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