If anyone is unsure as to whether or not Denis Villeneuve will be able to handle the sequel to Blade Runner, you can 100% rest assured in the knowledge that there is no better candidate for the job.
Arrival is an exceptional, contained sci-fi epic that relies on communication and understanding rather than high-powered portable Gatling guns and explosions. When 12 gargantuan pod-like spaceships land in several locations around the world, the military and scientists worldwide attempt to figure out what the reason is for their arrival on Earth. US army colonel Weber enlists the help of a brilliant linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in a mission to communicate with the extraterrestrials on board and finding out why they’re here.
I was lucky to see this a few weeks ago but I wanted to wait until the release date to get a review out; not only so it coincides with its release, but because I didn’t want to rush a review out immediately. I wanted to fully process the film and take it in. It’s safe to say I haven’t been this riveted by a sci-fi film since Interstellar, which wasn’t all that long ago, but there’s been plenty of sci-fi films released since then.
I made the extremely wise choice to not watch ANY trailers for this film, I went in 100% blind. The only info I had with me was that Denis Villeneuve directed it and both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner were in it. Villeneuve of course was the biggest draw for me. I’ve now seen four of his films, including this, and all four (Prisoners, Enemy & Sicario) have received the highest praise from me. He is without question one of the best new filmmakers working today, if not the best. There’s a LOT of talent out there but none with the visionary style that he brings to the table. All of his films are films I don’t want to see end. I remember being delighted when it occurred to me that there was yet another hour left in Prisoners.
Amy Adams continues to be one of the best actresses working today, with two consecutive belters released one after another (this and Nocturnal Animals) – She was also in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film I don’t think deserves the level of hate thrown at it, despite it’s glaring imperfections, but she doesn’t really add anything to that other than a villain’s leverage against Superman. Both here and Nocturnal Animals, she was able to completely flourish in the performances.
Jeremy Renner was great too, though a tad under used other than for some comic relief, but in a way I think that was intentional. I consider his lack of big input (other than a couple of key scenes) to be important to the story. There’s even moments where he’s not even sure why he’s there and I think it adds well to the confusion everyone is going through. Most films will put only the necessary people on screen and pack it out with reasons for them to be there in the story, but the idea that he’s there for a job and doesn’t seem to be needed that often works in its favour, at least for me. Similar to James Gandolfini’s performance in Killing Them Softly, in which he’s also called in to do a job, albeit a more violent one; and he turns out to not be what he was built up to be, but more of a wash-up who indulges in alcohol, food and prostitutes. Some argue he was wasted but I think that added brilliantly to the story and subverted expectations. To me, Renner is the same here. He’s not useless, he’s in fact vital to the situation, but not necessarily to the story line.
Forest Whitaker is great too and has always been one of the finest character actors working in cinema, but I feel lately he more often than not plays a lot of the same types of characters. Either he’s an important figure in the military, a detective or a blue collar worker. He’s clearly a very capable actor (See: The Last King of Scotland) and I think he’s often under-utilised. That’s not to say his performances are bad, they’re great for what they are, but they’re just a bit samey for me.
While this is a sci-fi thriller, it does have such a brooding atmosphere that it verges on horror at times, never really taking that full step, but getting close. This mostly lies in the mystery, the unusual visions Dr. Banks gets, the tensions caused by different countries and their plans to attack the pods if they don’t get anywhere with their negotiations and most importantly in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s haunting score. It had the same feeling of dread at certain moments that you got with Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans soundtrack for Enemy.
It’s also an incredible film in the visual department too; lots of sprawling, epic landscape shots and stylish digital effects that don’t in anyway take you out of the film. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, has done amazing work with A Most Violent Year and Selma, both of which share the same atmospheric look and almost desaturated tone as this. He has definitely developed a signature look. I’m also certain some of the Canadian locations used in this were used in Enemy too.
I found the story to be absolutely gripping and with such good characters and development, it pulled you in even further. You actually cared about the people in the film which is essential for the type of story they were going for. I loved that it focused on Adams and her methods of communicating with the aliens by effectively teaching each other their languages. It’s satisfying to see technology being used properly too, often without pointless expository dialogue; it’s shown visually and clearly. The political tensions that rise throughout are also handled really well and are a great source of nail biting moments.
There’s no question that it’s a bit of a head-fuck once it reaches a certain point. It takes a big leap of faith that some people may not be ready for, considering it’s such a grounded film up until then but even that leap doesn’t take it too far away from what it was doing anyway. It’s certainly not as big a leap as Interstellar took, which I also loved, but many felt the film dropped off in quality from then. It’s satisfying to see a sci-fi film take some risks and go a bit beyond the usual warfare that would take priority. There’s moments in that act you could see as a bit unusual for the story and why it’s happening, but when you pay attention to how certain things are played out, it makes a lot of sense. It does become clear that it’s more specifically a character piece rather than worldwide invasion.
It’s important you pay close attention throughout the whole film, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to do so considering it’s such an engrossing film. Just be sure to not go with anyone who is a cinema-talker, for both yours and the other patron’s sake!
This year has provided some of the finest films from almost every genre and for me this is without question the sci-fi film of the 2016; I don’t see anything else coming close, except maybe Rogue One, but even then, that’ll probably be on the more fun and entertaining side. It’s currently sitting comfortably in my top 10, possibly even top 5 of 2016. You’ll be able to see where at the end of this year. Until then, make sure you see this film on the biggest screen you can find.
What I liked:
- Incredible visuals and cinematography
- Haunting score
- Top class performances from everyone involved
- A respectful use of CGI and digital effects
- Gripping story
- Heart stopping tension
- Confident writing
- Treats the audience like adults
- Perfect pacing and editing
What I didn’t Like:
- I genuinely don’t think there’s anything I didn’t like, other than maybe: One scene early on of Amy Adams in her space suit, her face was fairly obviously digitally imposed, but even then it didn’t take me out of it. That’s genuinely the one gripe and that with serious nitpicking.
Arrival is currently in all Ireland and UK cinemas.