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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Arrival (reviewed by Ben)

Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival is nothing less than superb, a brilliant look at humanity, science and language that redefines the sci-fi genre. This great idea for a story is brought to life by the talent of it’s leading lady and breathtaking special effects.

The movie’s plot is about human communication. I’ve  seen a lot of alien movies, and it usually happens that the creatures arrive and are miraculously able to communicate fully with the humans they are visiting (usually to conquer). In this case, renowned linguistics professor Margaret Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in because the government can’t talk to the aliens who have arrived. She is brought to the nearest vessel in Montana to try to communicate with them, while physicist Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner) joins her as the scientist half of the team.

To describe the rest of the film’s story would be to spoil some of it’s many mind-blowing twists, so I’ll be vague. She learns that their language is based around time, and their own sense of it. As she and other scientists try to decode their language, human fear of the unknown kicks in through a military part of the story which is less interesting than it’s main theme which is more about communication. In an unexpected twist, the alien’s language has a lot to do with Banks’ perished daughter.

The film is also visually incredible, with long shots, close ups and everything in between. The camera might linger on something for a very long period of time to increase suspense, while other small details are only seen in brief passing. Shots follow one character instead of the exciting action around them, which gives the audience a personal perspective on the action.

Watching character development in a movie that’s all about a sense of time is extremely interesting. Adams’ Banks is a very intriguing protagonist, and it’s difficult to figure out her motivation as it turns out that she sees time in a way that’s different from the rest of us. What appears from the start to be a simple tale about a people trying to communicate with intimidating aliens ends up being about how characters re-learn the way they think. This kind of storytelling, that’s not quite time travel but plays with time in an original way, is what makes the already great film so unique.

It wasn’t considered an Oscar frontrunner this year, though the 8 nominations and 1 win it scored were a big step for science fiction movies, especially when put up against uber dramatic Oscar-baiters like La La Land, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Other science fiction pictures in the past few years have been critically successful, such as Gravity and Avatar but none were as dramatically impressive as this one which truly deserved it spot as one of the best few pictures of the year.

The film features quite a few talented group of actors, including the 6 time Oscar Nominee leading lady, Adams, as well as everyone’s least favorite superhero (but a charmer regardless), Renner and the charismatic Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the military commander.

The movie is PG-13 rated, meaning that nothing is in here that wouldn’t be in a Marvel Superhero picture, and it is actually far less violent and action-packed. It has more adult themes about human nature, world chaos, international wars and losing a child. A little heavy and perhaps even boring for a less mature audience, but a must see for fans of thought-provoking sci-fi.

Dad responds: I liked it a lot, less for the effects (which you were more impressed by than I was) or the military bits they tacked onto the story, than for the patience and thoughtfulness of the storytelling.  Arrival reminded me of science fiction movies from the pre-Star Wars age, films like 2001, Soylent Green or Silent Running which used the open-endedness of the sci-fi genre to ask difficult questions about who we are (vs. how to stop them from invading the planet and taking all our stuff). The movie was based on this short story which is definitely worth going back to before or after you’ve seen the film (assuming there’s a difference between the two).