Arrival (2016) (Review)

Arrival is the film the world needs at the minute. Its heady and rousing themes of overcoming differences and bridging divides act as the perfect antidote to the darkness the world is facing and it comes at the most opportune time imaginable. With the risk of sci-fi becoming convoluted and unnecessarily complex, there is a beautiful simplicity to Arrival that strikes a stunning balance between the two species it presents and what they can do together, as well as the risk of what prejudice and fear play in defining our race. Arrival is easily one of the best films of the year. 

When twelve mysterious extraterrestrial spaceships touch down across the globe, an elite team is assembled to investigate what lies inside and what they are here for. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) lead the mission to understand the true meaning and intentions of the aliens, along with US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). On the brink of a global war with everyone scrambling for answers to the survival of humanity, they must answer the question: why are they here? It's the next in the line of Autumn/Winter sci-fi offerings, following on from Interstellar, Gravity and The Martian but Arrival manages to exceed almost every genre entry before it, crafting some astoundingly unique and powerful. 

While 'aliens coming to earth' is by no means a new story, not one of them has injected so much humanity into the story it tells: Arrival pushes the boundaries of what sci-fi can say or do, while setting up a whole new goalpost for those that try to follow it, truly becoming the sci-fi film of a generation. Eric Heisserer's screenplay (adapted from Story of My Life, a short story written by Ted Chiang) is downright incredible in delivering both spectacle and brain, crafting an entirely compelling and absorbing story that truly feels like it is taking you on a journey; that may sound cliched, but nothing about this story is - just when you think you have worked out the direction the story is heading, a new narrative strand or emotional core is introduced that paves a new course for audiences to be swept along with. It feels original and revolutionary, expertly unfurling at a steady pace and avoiding the 'blockbuster pressure' of pushing perfunctory set piece after set piece into play, letting it unravel naturally and organically and it's all the stronger for it. 

The performances, all round, are breathtakingly powerful, even though it's a quieter picture than you would believe.  Amy Adams absolutely steals the show as linguistic expert Louise Banks, who is troubled by the loss of her daughter in a heartbreaking opening montage and narration. Poised and controlled, her character is written and performed as the film's emotional magnet; from teaching aliens English and highlighting the importance of communication, to delivering the heart-wrenching yet bittersweet finale exposition, she commands your attention at every given moment without overpowering the story that is being told.  Jeremy Renner, while impressive, is very much utilised as a supporting character to Adams' lead, offering a more scientific and mathematic view to her focus on language and humanity. Whitaker's character needs work and feels very much like an authoritative figure between the two 'teams' but serves his purpose well enough. Outside the cast and screenwriter, two more very important players are responsible for this masterpiece; director Denis Villeneuve (responsible for the brilliant Prisoners and Sicario) keeps a tight focus on both the humans and aliens of the story with such care and understanding for the story. Awe-inspiring imagery, while beautiful and elegant, never detracts from the thematic work at play and go hand in hand with the luscious score created by Johann Johannsson - both soft and sudden - that encourages a building momentum to the heart-stopping final act. 

So many elements fall into place and work wonders in Arrival, but it is the pure and genuine emotion infused into the story from the first frame until the last that makes it so remarkable. This is a film that has such an understanding and care for the themes it plays with, the characters it handles and the story it has to tell that allows the audience to invest so profoundly in the picture. It's enlightening, melancholy and immersive often all at once, with a stunning character arc for Adams' Louise and mid-point twist that changes our whole understanding of the story; often, the yearn for something to change path for the simple reason of keep the audience suspended comes off as conceited and frustrating, but this feels so earned and natural and inspiring and true to the story that you are only engrossed further. When the realisation of time comes two thirds of the way into the story, you feel that the film cannot consider bigger themes such as this, and then delivers an emotional cathartic and resonating twist that profoundly pulls every heart string - leaving you both jaw-dropped and broken. It's perfect consideration of a multitude of themes and tones are incredible, but none of them triumph as much as it's consideration and care for the human emotion running through the film's centre. 

Complaining for the sake of complaining feels redundant when Arrival does so much right, and truly feels like the genre's defining entry for decades to come. I can suggest that the middle section features a scene that feels planted for the sake of planting an additional few minutes, as well as my issue with the film not perhaps considering the impacts these extraterrestrial objects have, and my encouragement in pushing its allegorical resonance a little further, but all of this is down to my personal 'wants' from the film and not something it did wrong as such, in any stretch of the imagination. 

Arrival is a profoundly affecting, deeply philosophical love note to humanity and all of its strengths when the word needs to hear it. It uncovers the difficulties of communication and the importance of language in building an important rhetoric regarding with ideas, concepts and beings we don't understand.  It resonates emotionally because of the compassionate script, stunning acting, tight direction and magical score that feels enchanting when they all work to the very best of their ability - particularly in the film's first and final acts - which renders the film as an entirely emotional, compelling cinematic experience. I cannot speak highly enough of this film and, if like myself, your faith in humanity is beginning to waver, take the time to remind yourself of what we can do when we work together and fight to understand. 


Summary: Arrival is the sci-fi film of a generation, with deeply affecting and philosophical themes shining in a script written with care and understanding, sensational performances that refuse to overpower and a tight direction that puts the film's most powerful theme at the forefront - humanity. 

Highlight: The feeling I had leaving the cinema, knowing I'd found a new favourite film.