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Movie Review: Arrival

Like the best science fiction Arrival disguises its true intentions, its greater themes and deeper conversation, under images of spaceships and aliens and that thing that lives in our brains that makes us look up and wonder


Directed by Denis Villeneuve

In Theatres

Like the best science fiction Arrival disguises its true intentions, its greater themes and deeper conversation, under images of spaceships and aliens and that thing that lives in our brains that makes us look up and wonder. As with most things genre, science fiction over the past few years has devolved to series of things going boom and the things that make them go boom. Entertaining and enjoyable things going boom, but still, just things going boom. More directed to our collective lizard brain and away from the frontal lobe. Entertaining and enjoyable on a visceral level, but not exactly Solaris or 2001 or Silent Running or whatever. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with things going boom, it's just that occasionally it would be nice to see something with a little more substance, with a little more meat on the bones. Sometimes it's nice to leave a theatre having conversations that are more "what did that mean?" than "whoa, did you see that thing blow up?" 

There have been exceptions. Midnight Special and Interstellar come to mind. And Doctor Strange and Stranger Things. But, really, the trend has been more towards the familiar and the spectacle than towards the Big Thoughts. And there's an audience for the Big Thoughts. Interstellar made back six times its budget. Stranger Things is one of Netflix's biggest hits. Doctor Strange is Marvel Studio's most successful stand alone film. And in the few weeks since its release Arrival has brought in about a hundred and five million dollars on a fifty million dollar budget. Sure, these aren't Force Awakens numbers. But there is an audience for the more weighty, the more thoughtful. No matter how many think pieces fill up the intertubes about the death of anything that isn't pure spectacle, the audience for something that will provoke conversation and thought is still out here and filling up seats in cineplexes. 

And Arrival will provoke conversation and thought. Love it or hate it, Arrival will climb into your brain and take up residence there. There really is no denying the power of the story, the power of this film. On its surface, Arrival is a story of first contact. Twelve ships have arrived around the globe and humanity has to find a way to communicate to determine the intentions of the visitors. Are they explorers or are they tourists? Are they scientists or are they conquerors? We've had many first contact stories before this one. Independence Day, Alien Nation, District 9, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But we've never had anything quite like this before. 

Arrival is a story of humanity struggling to communicate with something completely alien. It's about the minefield that inaccurate communication can be. And not just verbal but also written communication. Look at it this way - you have no idea if I intend this sentence sincerely or if I'm being sarcastic. But Arrival brings up other deeper issues concerning communication that I could never do justice to. At its simplest Arrival deals with the Who's On First conundrum. Even with a common language, with a common culture and a life history with many similar moments the breakdown in communications occurs because of a lack of definitions of the terms being used. "Who's on first?" "No, Who's on second." I'm not the first person to bring this up in conversations surrounding Arrival. But I have probably done the worst job of it and have completely sucked the joy out of one of the great comedy bits of all time. So it goes.

So many times science fiction has portrayed aliens as just like us but with some added bits, they're obviously humanoid in some recognizable fashion. We can see the eyes, the ears, the whatever. But everything about the aliens in Arrival stresses their otherness, their alienness. The ships, the visitors' physiology, the way they move, their spoken and written language. Everything is completely unique and is obviously not of this world. The care that these environments and concepts were created with is apparent. It really is a testament to Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his team that they put in so much work and care but then never beat the audience with their work. Our introduction to the arrival of the ships isn't an orgy of CGI and software. Instead, it's the face of Amy Adams as she watches the news on a television. We see the wonder and the fear and the disbelief on her and her students' faces. The audience is left to wonder at what they have seen, what has shaken them. Even the aliens themselves are cloaked in fog, shadows moving through a mist, their full presence only hinted at.

Mr. Villeneuve and his team have created a film that is unique and startlingly fresh while borrowing bits and pieces from the history of the genre. There are elements of Contact and Close Encounters and 2001, hints of the writing of Kurt Vonnegut and Arthur C. Clarke and Harlan Ellison. But the way the pieces are put together is startlingly fresh and original. From the way the story is told, the way it is laid out for us, to the score, to the script, to the way the story is resolved, every aspect of Arrival is handled in a way that only Mr. Villeneuve could have created. Arrival, unlike so many other science fiction films, is rooted in reality. The way the human race reacts, with wonder, with fear, with paranoia, it all feels real. 

Arrival is also a story about grief and loss. And I don't think I've ever seen it handled this way before. As much as I really and honestly and truly enjoy the heck out of Gravity, the dead daughter feels more like a character trait than a real and substantial loss. Here, in Arrival, the weight of the grief, of the loss of a child is handled with a sensitivity and is heartbreaking and soaks into the pores of the film. It weighs on the audience as we watch this character deal with the situation they're in and the job they're doing. That contradictory sense of heartache and joy dictates so much of the way we watch this film.

Look, if I go on much more I run the risk of destroying the amazing sense of discovery that comes with watching Arrival. Trust me on this - Arrival needs to be seen. Every aspect of this film, from the dialogue to the acting to the cinematography to the set design to the craft services is beyond anything else I've seen this year. This isn't hyperbole. Arrival is my favourite film of the year. 2016 has punched us all in the throat over and over and over again. It's been a bad one and I won't be sad to say goodbye. But to end on something like Arrival, that is one hell of a turn.