Arrival (2016)

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For the past few years, there seems to be an annual “space” film – some big blockbuster set in space, or related to space-travel in some way. I have liked all of them (and outright loved Gravity and The Martian), and the best part is that they were different enough to be excellent on their own merits rather than being compared to one another. However, one thing about them is how crowd-pleasing they were, while still remaining intelligent and well-made cinema. This year, our “space” film was slightly different, in the way that this is not going to be a film that crowds will flock to see, and I expect it to alienate a few people (see what I did there? I apologize profusely) – and being committed to this trend, along with some other great factors, I was first in line to see Arrival this morning, and I have to say, it is most excellent.

Let’s get this right out there – I study Linguistics at university. I fully intend on devoting my professional life to Linguistics. However, one thing someone who has studied Linguistics will tell you is that there are a few core questions absolutely everyone asks us – “what can you do with Linguistics?” and “how many language can you speak?” – these questions never fail to pop up, and they become more annoying each and every time. I also have had a bit of a gripe with how my field of study has been represented – it is such a unique and interesting field (I will be biased and say it is the most interesting subject in the world), yet it is hardly ever shown in popular culture. You can imagine my absolute delight when I found out that there would be a science fiction film where the protagonist isn’t some cynical scientist or burly military man, but rather a simple Linguist – it instantly became a must-see for me. You can excuse my excitement, but one has to understand that to see something like Linguistics represented in such a way in a film like Arrival was beyond exciting, because it is the study of something we all use everyday, yet it has so rarely been actually shown. I have to say, a good portion of this film either consisted of me squealing in delight over the obscure Linguistics jargon, or occasionally correcting some glaring mistake (such as the implication that a Linguist knows how to speak every language in the world – does a scientist know every equation?)

Essentially, Arrival is about twelve unidentified, extraterrestrial objects landing in various parts of the world. Instead of doing what Hollywood expects the world to do when aliens arrive, the military does not immediately attack the visitors, and rather, they bring in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a Linguist who apparently speaks every language in the world (a small, but annoying, problem for me). The intention is to find a way to communicate with these visitors and find out exactly why they decided to come to Earth in the first place. Over the course of the film, Dr. Banks, with the assistance of scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) tries to communicate with these aliens and finds the one way to standardize a language, which is to write it down (a great piece of Linguistic knowledge that I’m glad this film stuck to). The results become more and more complicated, and lead to one of the most brilliant cinematic twists I’ve ever seen, and the film becomes far more confusing and mind-bending than Interstellar or Inception, but in a way that is far more cerebral and intense than one would expect.

Denis Villeneuve is one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today, and his seemingly non-stop streak of diverse masterpieces continued with Arrival. Villeneuve has gone from making smaller films in his native Canada, to making a fantastically paranoid crime thriller (Prisoners), a strange and idiosyncratic drama (Enemy) and a terrifying border-control thriller (Sicario) – and that isn’t to mention that he’s working on the sequel to Blade Runner, and another crime thriller, The Son. Villeneuve is rapidly making a name for himself as a filmmaker able to make cerebral movies that both thrill and make the audience think – his films are not simple escapism, they are intense, fully-immersive experiences, where we are thrust into these worlds, and told to follow and hold on, or risk getting lost. Arrival is a strange kind of science fiction film, in the way that while it technically does qualify to be science fiction, it is firmly rooted in realism, and the way Villeneuve made this film is far from being the speculative, crowd-pleasing and action-packed blockbuster we have come to expect, and that is perfectly fine – a film about aliens does not need to have any conflict at all to be effective.

Amy Adams is such an amazing actress, and she is going to be considered one of the all-time great actresses in the future. In part, it is because of her magnetic talents, and how she is able to be so expressive and emotive, and play a range of very diverse characters – her ability to play both the air-headed Princess Giselle in Enchanted and the grounded and intelligent Dr. Louise Banks in Arrival proves she is one of the very definitions of range. In Arrival, Adams is given a ton to work with, and she creates a truly compelling performance in Dr. Banks, making her a meaningful and interesting character, and developing her far beyond where this film tried to limit the character from having much deeper meaning. This is essentially the reason why Villeneueve is such a brilliant director – not only is he a visually stunning filmmaker, he also manages to bring out the best in his actors, and even in her most sedate moments, Adams radiates pure emotional intensity. Arrival is undeniable The Amy Adams Show, and even though Jeremy Renner is better than he’s been in years here, he still can’t match the powerful performance Adams gives. Alas, Forest Whitaker continues to prove that he is the master of playing characters that are supposed to be interesting, but just aren’t. Whitaker, with a bad accent, just didn’t seem the part of a tough army colonel, and I just felt his performance was so weak, it slightly detracted from Adams, and Renner to an extent. Make no mistake – Amy Adams is really the only performer who matters to this film, because without a truly captivating performance from her, this film would fail dismally.

Here is the very important disclaimer – Arrival is not the film many people expect it to be. It is not an action-packed, intense and undeniably enjoyable popcorn blockbuster. It is not a film that will satisfy those looking for pure escapism and mindless fun. Arrival is a film that may be about aliens, but it is far from being what one would expect. I recall only one moment of legitimate action, and that was only slightly and a minor part of the plot. While I wouldn’t call Arrival boring, it certainly is paced and deliberate, and a very calm film – there is very little tension, but rather a lingering sense of slowly-paced suspense. Please do not feel like this is a bad thing – I do certainly feel this is a film that should be seen, because it is utterly brilliant. I also don’t want to put any potential viewers off by implying that it is boring or not worth one’s time. It certainly is worth every minute. The problem is that it is cerebral and very intelligent, and while it definitely isn’t inaccessible or alienating (I did it again, I’m sorry), it is a film that will require a lot of reflection, and a close following of the plot is essential. It is one of the smartest films I’ve ever seen, and I feel like many people will get a kick out of how intelligent this film is. It doesn’t resort to cheap action or over-produced CGI battles, but rather strives to reflect how the world is likely to react in such an instance, and it is lovely that the concept of science and academic research is at the forefront of a film like Arrival. Many science fiction films ignore the “science” aspect of their genre, but a film like Arrival takes a bold step in crafting a drama film that just happens to include aliens. I adored this aspect, and felt it makes Arrival absolutely worth it.

Please see Arrival. It is absolutely wonderful. It is one of the best films of the year, and Amy Adams is excellent in it. Denis Villeneuve continues to be a filmmaker that I will follow wherever his career goes. Arrival is just another feather in his already astounding cap, and I feel like he is going to become one of the most respected filmmakers of all time. I think Arrival is exactly the film we need, because in a world preoccupied with big-budget, CGI-filled science fiction and action, a film like Arrival dares to be different by being small and intimate – and because of that, it is one of the most astonishing films of the year. Go see this film – it is worth it. The slow pace and the scientific overtones are worth it for one of the most incredible films of the year.

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