Arrival (2016)

13 Nov

arrival-trailer1-screen2

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

First contact. It’s a subject explored in many science-fiction stories. If extra-terrestrial life came to Earth, what would it mean? Why would the aliens come here? How would we react? Etc. It’s a fascinating concept to think about—what if we are not alone in the universe? It seems we’ve covered everything that could be done with this scenario—either the aliens are hostile (“Independence Day,” “War of the Worlds,” “Signs”) or they’re friendly (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman”) or they’re here to warn us (“The Day The Earth Stood Still,” “The Abyss”) or they’re stranded here until humans assist them to get home (“E.T.,” “Starman”). Bottom line is, we’ve been through this many times before in movies. So, when French-Canadian “Prisoners”/”Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve’s alien-arrival drama/thriller “Arrival” came to light, I had to wonder—what could this film do that countless other films haven’t already?

“Arrival” beings with the “arrival” of 12 huge quadrilateral ships that hover above the ground at random locations all around the world. Because it’s difficult to communicate with whatever is inside them, no one knows what to make of them—are they dangerous or just visiting or what? Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) of the US government calls upon Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professional linguist, to see if she can make anything of the symbols the aliens use to attempt to communicate. She’s reluctant at first to join the first contact team near one of the ships, but she leads kind of an empty life, so she decides to join because she feels she has nothing to lose. Paired with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she boards the ship, sees the aliens in their true form (giant seven-legged creatures), and begins to decipher the alien language. She also teaches the aliens human vocabulary so that eventually the team can get an answer to the big question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

To start off, the film’s tone is set just right, to make it feel like this is really happening; that otherworldly ships have landed on Earth and it’s unknown why the beings inside them are here. The focus is kept on one set of characters in one location near one of the 12 ships scattered all over the world. All we know that’s happening elsewhere is what they see/hear through webcam chats and television media. By using this simple method of storytelling, it not only makes the unknown more unnerving but it also makes the audience more anxious.

But whatever—that’s a given in alien-arrival films, to make the unknown more mysterious until the aliens’ intention is revealed later. What is the film really about? Communication. I won’t give away how, but the communication this film investigates isn’t merely between humans and aliens; it shows the importance of it in a way I can’t explain without talking about spoilers. It’s best I just get across in this review how this film affected me as a critic and a filmgoer and let you go in with a virgin experience.

All I can say about the last half-hour is this: I didn’t see it coming, and I surely didn’t expect to be as fascinated by it as I was. It even raised a discussion with my father, whom I saw it with. I was surprised how much this film left us with more to talk about than I expected it to.

In an outstanding career consisting of 5 Oscar nominations (in 10 years!), Amy Adams turns in one of her best roles here. It’s one of her more serious and psychologically challenging roles, and she is nothing short of perfect in performing it. The more I got to learn about her character, the more I felt for her. And then when I learn something critical about her, it makes her all the more fascinating. But again, I can’t explain why here.

I don’t know how I can continue reviewing this film without giving away some important elements, because “Arrival” really is more than I’m letting on. It’s a powerful, intriguing and thought-provoking drama/thriller that surprised me, delighted me in doing so, and was a wonderful experience all the way through. I really wish I could go into it some more, but maybe someday, after a second viewing, I’ll come back with an analytical review in which I talk about the mysteries’ answers that fascinated me.

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