Review by Eden Rabatsch ★★★★ 1/2

The vast majority of science fiction entertainment is just a way to get us on a rollercoaster, pack a few guns and enjoy the ride. It is the rare exception which lures you away from the rides section and into the Hall of Mirrors where the tension is immutably tied to withstanding the vision reflected back at you.

The story has been told before but maybe never before so realistically. When alien ships enter Earth’s atmosphere at 12 checkpoints, the various governments struggle with the enormity of the challenge. The American response is to activate a team of scientists lead by mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). As opposed to your usual sci-fi actioner, the tension here is organically generated with the problem of how to communicate with an alien lifeform. As this mystery unfolds so does an international game of brinksmanship where humanity’s worst tendencies might cost us a chance at real communication with the aliens.

arrival-movieThis is Denis Villeneuve’s fourth english speaking film from the Canadian director and he just gets better with each film. With each project he becomes a more polished storyteller who does not shy away from confronting material (Prisoners) to the fantastical (Enemy) and of course, the best film I saw in the last year or two – “Sicario”. His confidence and eye are now so bold that he can take on the most difficult of stories (and this is intrepidly complicated) and tell the story with aplomb. Villeneuve now has mastery of the shot – he uses negative space as much as what you are seeing, the camera tracks to bring the subject into view in a way which tells you about the story universe. There is one tracking shot on a helicopter as they approach the alien craft for the first time which is breathtaking – Scorsese level. The artistry and technical knowhow just on that one shot is stupendous.

The cast is very good and even the smallish roles like the CIA operative are filled by blue chip actors like the always fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpern and Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber. Whitaker, as the mission team commander, is a lot calmer then he once was and his performance is much better for it. Renner is, well Renner. I have never seen his appeal apart from Zero Dark Thirty but as a cipher for the audience he is fine. Amy Adams is great – maybe Oscar nomination great. Adams has to do a lot of heavy lifting to take the audience with her and her confidence in being a real person in a remarkable situation makes the film work. The film is as much about how humanity reacts to the ineffable and that is achieved through Adam’s eyes. She is the mirror.

The cinematography of Bradford Young is top notch. It is a muted palette of greys and clouds. The world is earthy and living to contrast with the alien. Young does some remarkable work with the atmosphere and weather to great effect. Johann Johannsson is back after his magnificent work on “Sicario” and it works so well here because the music seamlessly infuses with the story as much as the visual cues.

It would be remiss to not warn that Villeneuve is an artist for adults. Whether because of content, style or is this case, complexity. There is no spoon feeding. To understand “Arrival” you need to have some base knowledge of linguistic philosophy. In a nutshell, there are theories as to whether language itself CHANGES the way in which the brain thinks. This gets quite complicated and contentious but Arrival takes that to a new level. Language theory becomes a tool required to understand the film itself.

arrival-filmreviewIn every scene the filmmaker is exploring humanity. Some of the clunkier scenes are to show the darker side and funnily enough they don’t seem to work as well –humanity at its worst just seems melodramatic. The film eventually relies on a technical storytelling which is bold and confident but will leave some in its wake. For a rule of thumb, if Kubrick and especially “2001” were not your cup of tea this might be one to miss. If, on the other hand, you are game for the challenge, Villeneuve has provided a film in which he uses film grammar to audaciously tell a very human story and maybe the best film of 2016.

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  1. Francis Fabian

    Definitely watching this. Language is one of my favourite things. China Mieville wrote a recent book about alien language called Embassytown (haven’t read it). And Samuel Delaney wrote Babel-17 that is based on the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis which I vaguely recall you mentioning? (last podcast?). Read it decades ago but I liked it (just don’t remember it well – time for a re-read, maybe)

    1. Eden Rabatsch

      I mentioned Sapir Whorf in the podcast which is a very contentious and complicated linguistics theory…fascinating stuff. I have tried Mieville twice and it didn’t work for me though his ideas always look great. Ted Chiang who wrote the short story it’s based on spent 5 years studying linguistics just to write that story!


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