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Review – Arrival (12a) [2016]

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Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Denis Villeneuve – Prisoners, Sicario, Untitled Blade Runner film

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Johann Johannsson – Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Sicario, The Mercy

Aliens invading Earth is not an original idea. Since 1996, there has been an overabundance of alien invasion movies. From the entertaining (Independence Day I and Men in Black I); to the risible (Mars Attacks! and Battlefield Earth); to the Tom Cruise saves the day flicks (War of the Worlds, Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow); to a board game adaptation (Battleship, starring deserved Golden Raspberry winner Rihanna); to comic book adaptations (The Avengers I and Man of Steel); to the dull (Battle: LA and Independence Day II), audiences have seemingly seen it all when it comes to this genre. So how can Arrival differentiate itself and stamp its own mark?

One of the twelve UFOs. This one has stopped in rural Montana, with beautiful fields and mountains for scenery.

One of the twelve UFOs. This one has stopped in rural Montana, with beautiful fields and mountains for scenery.

Arrival is based on the short story by Ted Chiang. Twelve UFOs (shaped like giant contact-lenses) station themselves on random locations in the world. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the US military asks Louise (Amy Adams), an expert linguistics lecturer, to use her philological skills to help the US government. Louise agrees and together with Ian (Jeremy Renner), a scientist, they try to work out what the aliens are saying, why they have come, and what their intentions are.

Concurrently, Louise keeps thinking of her daughter, Hannah. Somehow, Louise’s interactions with Hannah have a link to the aliens. But what is it?

Arrival is an interesting and original sci-fi film. Unlike the movies listed above, this one has no action sequences. Indeed, it is anti-action and does not depend on mass special effects either. Rather, the movie stresses the need for dialogue between the humans and the great other. This is most refreshing as guns, explosions, and the annihilation of aliens has long since become a sci-fi trope.

The stress for dialogue also enables viewers to comprehend the nature of our own languages and how they have shaped societies, which is interesting. Furthermore, the film gives us insight into a lost past in which peoples who had no common language made peace and worked with one other: for example, when the Spanish and Portuguese invaded Latin America in the late-fifteen century, and when the British began forging an empire in India in the seventeenth century. (Granted, the Spanish, Portuguese and British killed their fair share of the indigenous populations. But they still had to communicate and work with those they didn’t kill.)

Louise (Amy Adams) looking up in awe at the aliens. Her big blue eyes are so expressive and hint at a plethora of emotions running through her to add depth to her character.

Louise (Amy Adams) looking up in awe at the aliens. Her big blue eyes are so expressive and hint at a plethora of emotions running through her to add depth to her character.

Yet, as interesting as it is watching humans trying to work a new language, it is not particularly stimulating. At times, it is like watching someone untie a bunch of tangled wires or put together a complex, multi-piece puzzle. Both of which are fascinating, but become tedious after a while. Arrival does, however, do its best to keep viewers attentive. Principally, this is done by Forest Whitaker’s character (repeatedly) urging Amy Adams/Louise and Jeremy Renner/Ian to find out the intentions of the aliens because the US, Chinese, Russian and Sudanese(?) governments are preparing to launch military assaults on the UFOs/aliens. It is a good method, but one that becomes cheap and wearisome after a while.

Moreover, Arrival’s ending has two elements: one is very clever and satisfying; the other, though, streams into wishful thinking. This leaves audiences with a peculiar feeling. One wants to praise the finale, yet one cannot help but feel that it weakens the film as most of mankind (realists) understand that international diplomacy does not work the way the movie illustrates; self-interest being one of the many reasons for this.

But for all the plot’s problems, the actors perform well; especially, Amy Adams. Her character is multifaceted since Louise is witty, successful and hardworking, but also insecure and in grief. The pressure of trying to understand the Alien’s language rapidly gets at her, as well, and the way it manifests itself makes for curious viewing.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. And fast. Otherwise, there will be war.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. And fast. Otherwise, there will be war.

Unusually, the male characters are marginalised. Normally in Hollywood, it is the other way round. But Arrival has smartly inverted this cliché. Renner’s character/Ian is a good support for Louise and they work well together. Whitaker’s character/Colonel Weber is less so. He has one purpose and it is a relief that his character does not stray into the puffed-up general bad-guy trope, like Steven Lang’s villainous army man in Avatar. This is a good thing too for two reasons: one, Whitaker/Weber is not a villain (on the contrary, he is just a man who is afraid of the unknown); and, two, it helps to make Arrival something different.

Arrival is a brave and admirable alien invasion drama. It is distinctive as it refuses to go down the action and CGI route. Instead, it relies on its characters and the quest for dialogue and peace. The movie achieves this with success. For sure, the movie has issues, notably its ending. Nevertheless, Arrival must be commended. It stamps its own mark in a genre that has otherwise become generic and braindead.

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