Arrival (2016)

There is no shortage of movies attempting to divine what our first contact will be like. Classic examples include 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and War of the Worlds. It is something we have been imagining since we first imagined we are not alone.

Science fiction should prod us to ask new questions and see the world in new ways. It should challenge writers and directors to bring something new to the table. This is a task of increasing difficulty when using a well worn narrative template.

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So my question is, does Arrival bring anything new to the table? The answer is a resounding yes. Director Denis Villeneuve uses first contact as a lens to reflect on who we are and how we work. Meticulous direction, thoughtful writing, and emotional acting deliver a profound experience.

The pacing and direction stand out as the best part of Arrival. Denis Villeneuve takes full advantage of every frame to build narrative. The core challenge of the protagonists is simple: how do we communicate? The directing and writing work together to make this personal. Beyond asking how do we communicate with aliens, but how do we communicate with each other?

When all the pieces become revealed, everything gets turned around. The structure of the story telling changes the direction of the questions we ask. It shifts from what we ask the aliens to how we perceive ourselves. To talk more about the answers that Arrival provides would spoil it, and they are worth the experience.

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Thanks to the directing, the visuals are not just beautiful, they are powerful. We feel the scale and weight of every scene and event. The ships aren’t eye candy, they’re inspiring works of art. The visitors are more than just believable graphically, they’re alien, and uncomfortable. Even when we are simply looking at people, their emotions are clearly conveyed in ever aspect of the scene.

The directing also builds on top of the unique ideas of the writing. For all the credit for delivering the story, the writing itself starts strong. Exposition can kill a promising story, but here it feels natural. Arrival provides context for what the audience needs to understand without pausing. This results in a thinner view of denser science, but with richer narrative.

Finally, the acting is top notch. Amy Adams lands difficult emotional nuance, and is a joy to watch. She conveys the complete range of human emotion without breaking a sweat. Jeremy Renner is dry enough for a supporting role, but charismatic and engaging. I have never seen Forest Whitaker give a weak performance. He doesn’t steal scenes, he doesn’t undersell his character, he is perfect.

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The weakest link may be the music. It’s grand, heart pumping, and alien, but it feels like a rework of previous movies. Tons of base and strong emotional peaks, but not enough individuality or personality. Is it bad? Not in the least. I’m reaching for what I observed that could be better. That said, this wont at all be a detractor for anyone.

Arrival is an incredible film, thoughtful and provocative science fiction, and beautiful art. It is a must see for the year, for all movie goers. Those who watch this will remember it for decades to come as a classic.

Final Verdict:Arrival is beautiful, moving, and alien, transcending the sci-fi genre and a must see film.