Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer.
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Mchael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien.

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”

With his debut Incendies in 2010, Denis Villeneuve really hit the ground running and has been one of the most consistently interesting director’s for the last 7 years. There’s a host of films and genres that Villeneuve has explored in that time; from the nightmarish surrealism of Enemy; his unflinching kidnap thriller Prisoners and his drug cartel, action drama Sicario. If you put aside his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, you could say that Arrival is his warm-up to attempting to re-engage with that much loved science fiction classic. 

Plot: 12 mysterious, alien spacecrafts land across the globe with the whole of mankind questioning their intentions. Expert linguistic Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is hired to attempt to communicate with them. In the meantime, frustrations are leading earth to a global war and the answers Louise begins to decipher could mean the difference between saving or eradicating humanity altogether.

The renowned astrophysicist and author, Carl Sagan once wrote “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” This is a theoretical topic that courses throughout Villeneuve’s film and, at one point, even referenced directly.

Based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of your Life”, Arrival is not overly concerned with being a big-budget science fiction film. It certainly has these elements (and they are very well executed) but it’s more concerned with mood, atmosphere and exploring the very nature of our existence through language and our relationship and understanding of time and space. In doing so, Arrival has much in common with Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact (which itself was based on a book by the aforementioned Sagan). Both use the form of extraterrestrial communication as a device to understand ourselves and it’s this communication angle (and the reveal that results from it) that eventually turns Arrival on its head. It’s an angle that has split some viewers; is it too clever for its own good? Does it disappear up its own wazoo? Or is it a clever sleight of hand that questions our linear and literal perception of events? I’m siding with the latter but these questions are better left to the individual viewer.

What can be said, is that Villeneuve has done his homework on this. Much like Christopher Nolan’s approach to Interstellar, Villeneuve extensively ensured the film’s scientific ideology was accurate by enlisting the help of renowned scientists and tech innovators who advised on all the terminology, graphics and depictions. As Villeneuve is in no rush to tell his story, he demands a patience and a willingness to open up to the films theories and possibilities. It can often be weighty and does occasionally tread a fine line between absurdity and suspending your disbelief but there’s much to ruminate over and Villeneuve is aided immeasurably but his cast and crew; Bradford Young (who previously impressed me with his work in A Most Violent Year) delivers some stunningly captured cinematography and Jóhan Jóhansson’s score perfectly accompanies the mood and imagery. At the forefront, however, is a quietly effecting performance from Amy Adams. She brings such a subtle emotional depth that she contributes hugely to your ability to buy the films premise in the first place. It’s a performance that I’m very surprised has been omitted from this year’s academy awards.

I struggle with the ‘masterpiece’ label that has been thrust upon Villenueve’s film but there’s no doubt that Arrival is a delicate, thoughtful and accomplished piece of work. If he applies the same level of intelligence and challenging material to his Blade Runner 2049 then the continuation of Ridley Scott’s master of the genre may well be in good hands.

Mark Walker

Trivia: The Heptapod’s craft owes its design to an asteroid called 15 Eunomia. During research, director Denis Villeneuve became attracted to Eunomia’s “insane shape like a strange egg” and thought that kind of pebble or oval shape would bring a perfect sense of menace and mystery to the spacecraft.

33 Responses to “Arrival”

  1. Great review as always. This film blew my mind! I loved every minute of it. I wouldn’t quite call it a masterpiece either, but just a really exceptional film and a great achievement from a technical and narrative point of view. One of the best sci fi films I’ve seen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, not the masterpiece it’s been hailed as but still a damn fine sci/Fi nonetheless. I reckon I’ll actually like it more on a second viewing now that the anticipation is over with. There are many bones to pick at here. Cheers Liam.


  2. I can’t wait for Bladerunner 2049. Nice review, Mark. No love for Amy Adams this year during award season.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Can’t wait for Blade Runner either, Cindy. Really have high hopes for that and Villenueve is on form these days. He might just pull it off.

      Sadly, no love for Amy Adams. I thought she was great here. It’s a snub for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Really glad to hear you enjoyed this one. Can’t wait to get it on bluRay tomorrow. Still my favorite film of 2016 and another sign showing Villeneuve is one of our top working filmmakers in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Villeneuve is definitely on form isn’t he? He’s delivered a good range films over the last few years but the pressure is really on with Blade Runner. Here’s hoping he’s up to the task (which I think he is).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Totally agree. I think it was overhyped ever so slightly but it’s still certainly a fantastic movie. I just wish they would have kept the original ending in the script.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Simply marvellous review of a superb film. I found myself really connecting with it. And Amy Adams was the heartfelt and subtle anchor of the proceedings.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very good points raised here mate. The dearth of serious sci-fi with big ideas might be part of the reasoning for Arrival getting such a positive reception. I really liked it, albeit with a slightly muddled final act.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yeah I’m with you here; I don’t think it’s a masterpiece but it is nice to see an ideas-led sci-if movie do well and I liked the elements you’ve mentioned, such as Adams’ performance and the cinematography. The score was one of my favourites from last year too. Pretty good and I’m also hopeful for Blade Runner 2049. I hope it isn’t shit, or average.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I struggle with the masterpiece claim, Stu. It’s very good but not quite great! Totally with you on Adams, the cinematography and the Excellent score, man. I think if I had any major criticism, it would be the pace. It felt slightly off. Other than that, Blade Runner 2 is looking good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Too slow or too fast? It does suddenly jump into a montage at one point that shows the understanding developing between races – I guess it was necessary to speed things along, though I’m not sure it worked all that well.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Both! Too slow to begin (which I didn’t really mind) but it did feel rushed at the very point you mention. It’s a small criticism but something was missing. I’d need to see it again before I make a full judgment on that.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Villeneuve?! I didn’t even know this was his film. I have been looking forward to this, despite being led by Amy Adams. Now it is further up my list. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. With on everything here, except Adams. She was good in NA, but here…. I get the feeling almost any actress could have done that role, especially when surrounded by so much awesomeness.

    ” Arrival is not overly concerned with being a big-budget science fiction film”

    This is what I liked so much. It executes it very well like you said, but there is sooo much stuff to think about. Just the fact that their writing was totally different from their spoken language tripped me out!

    I think, because it is such a thoughtful sci-fi flick, it is getting overrated a bit, by myself too. I mean, I saw this twice in two nights, and came out the other side honestly thinking that it made Interstellar seem quite silly in comparison, not that they have much in common bar the genre they reside in.

    As much as I love Blade Runner, this is the best sci-fi flick I’ve seen since 2001. I’d love some recommendations to ruin that theory though!!


    • That’s high praise, indeed, man. I’m glad you took so much from this. I thought it was great too but the sheer epic spectacle of Interstellar sat better with me. Who knows, though, when I view it again, it could be as effective as Interstellar. I love sci-fi that actually has scientific ideas and theories and Arrival can certainly consider itself one of these. I don’t think I was fully ready for its pace, so it took me off guard a little there. As good as this is, though, Blade Runner is still the sci-fi daddy for me and I’m expecting good things with Villeneuve’s follow up.

      Liked by 1 person

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