Stars – Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director – Denis Villeneuve
Released by Paramount
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Both this one and La La Land have been getting a lot of nominations and praise. In each case the accolades are well deserved. The hype which is the normal way the publicity machine rolls from major studios may turn some off. This is not the most amazing science fiction film made in years. Whether it qualifies as the best picture you will see this year may get in the way with what it has to genuinely offer. Put all of that aside and enjoy it for what it is. Arrival is solid film delivered in a very slick way. Everything we see and hear is controlled and tweaked with clear intentions. Arrival fits nicely next to vintage science fiction films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. It is a first cousin to more modern ones like Contact and Interstellar. This is thinking man’s science fiction. It’s classy and centers more on character than spectacle. Even if the film concentrates on the multiple alien space ships that have landed around the world, it is clearly just as dedicated to the journey within one person’s soul.
Several huge monolithic space craft suddenly appear and hover above the ground or oceans throughout the globe. In fairly short order the military and government are focused on finding out what their intentions are. Is this peaceful or is an attack imminent. Since the aliens do not appear to communicate in any earthly ways a linguist and mathematician are recruited to establish contact with them. How they do this takes up the bulk of the film and it frankly fascinating in all its detail. There is a neat transition in the film that asks you to kind of think sideways along with the two experts who are trying to establish communication with the aliens. It’s a clever construction as the plotline of the film will wobble wobble nicely towards its satisfying conclusion. The small crew has to get inside bulky space suits. They ride way up to a small opening in the ship that is presented at the same time each day. Once inside gravity goes out the window. It is a strange journey to a very large unidentified dark space that faces a humongous window like force field. The aliens are huge. Most of their bodies disappear into a heavy fog that enshrouds everything there. They have long octopus like tendrils that reach out.
That fact that the communication happens in the written or drawn word is a fabulous and lovely visual conceit. We as an audience get to watch rather then listen to them try to establish contact. Amy Adams draws on a board and presents it to the creatures. The octopus like arms spray out an ink. They use this to then write in the foggy air. Real octopuses can emit an inky spray too. That makes a nice and gentle connection with real world science. As we watch them trade images back and forth this encourages us to shift our way of understanding the film as it unfolds. This is not an earth shattering gimmick but an intelligent way to invite us to appreciate the movie on another level. That level is not necessarily smarter but it makes for a few nice moments of realization as things unfold in the last portion of the narrative. The fact that film stands apart from the onslaught of action special effects oriented films in this genre is refreshing. That doesn’t mean it is better just that it quenches your thirst from something more cerebral.
Amy Adams delivers an excellent performance. Like many great science fiction tales the main character looks to the stars to find something within themselves. It is a warm feeling that she courts wonderfully throughout the whole film. She also embraces a melancholy sadness that permeates her character. Adams is able to share with us the way that changes and morphs into a different kind of understanding and appreciation. Jeremy Renner has a more grounded presence. Both of his feet are firmly planted on the ground while his partner’s tend to lift a bit. The writing in the script makes them an interesting and surprisingly balanced pair. Forest Whitaker gives a low key and a more intelligent portrayal of the military commander that is usual. So many films in this genre pivot on the rivalry between the military and the scientists. Here the military willingly steps aside when called for.
Arrival is a well done film that gives us a more cerebral science fiction tale. If you have read or seen a lot in this field some of the revelations may not be as original to you. The real strength in the story is its humanity or soul. Put all the hype aside and let yourself be taken on a nice ride. Arrival works well.
Video – 2.39:1
The picture looks sleek. At all times what we see is carefully controlled and presented with perfect clarity and good colors. The fog and haze that define the spaceship environment looks so real you could touch it. There is a depth to the billows of that fog, too. Flesh tones look nice.
Audio – DTS Master 7.1 in English, Dolby Digital5.1 in French and Spanish. Subtitles are offered English, English SDH, French, and Spanish
Dialogue is always clear and easy to follow. The music and effects are mixed to create an unusual environment. The soundscape that is created for the interactions with the aliens is quite remarkable. It would be chilling if you weren’t so tied to the possibility of meaningful contact. While there is good surround the sub woofer does not rock here. Effects are more subtle that you may be expecting.
Extras – Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design , Eternal Recurrence: The Score , Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process, Principles of Time, Memory & Language.
All of theses are presented in HD. The first one runs a half hour while the others are in the 15 minute range. They offer up a nice examination of how the film came together. There is a good emphasis on the creation of the soundscape for the film. A Digital HD copy is included.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent