Movie Review: ‘Arrival’ (Second Opinion)


Read Gfunk’s review right here!


Plot:  Renowned linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a grieving mother who recently lost her daughter.  When twelve mysterious objects suddenly appear all over the Earth, Banks is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help establish communication with an alien race she dubs heptapods.  Assisted by military astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the two must work together to establish the purpose of the heptapods appearance on Earth before a global conflict erupts. 


Review:  I sit in front of my keyboard and I write constantly about the various aspects of cinema.   I write about the components, the building blocks of a film.  I write about editing, score, the performances, the direction, and the other elements that combine to make a poor, average, or great movie.  But when a movie like Arrival comes along, a movie that was far and above my already high expectations, a movie that hit me like a roundhouse kick to the solar plexus, it makes you realize that all those things are just the surface material.  I never went to film school.  The reason I watch and write about films, the reason I write for this site, is because of my passion for cinema.  I watch in anticipation of a film that will captivate me, evoke an emotion (perhaps several), establish a connection, and maybe even make me re-examine my life in a new way.

Arrival is all of those things.

I can’t begin to convey how much Arrival affected me in a very personal way.  Furthermore, I don’t believe I was the only one.  When the credits rolled you could hear a pin drop in that theater.  I walked out of the theater doors almost in a trance, my mind spinning.  Only once before did I remember feeling this way after a movie and that was Saving Private Ryan.  This film was just as profound.  I walked to my car solemnly, almost as if I’d just left a funeral.  I’ve left two tough ones this year, one for my grandfather and one for my mother.  As I closed the door and started the engine to my Hyundai Elantra, the full implications of Arrival on a personal level rammed home.  I wept uncontrollably for a full five minutes.  That’s how deeply moving Arrival was for me.


Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a masterpiece.  It operates on multiple levels and is perhaps the most cerebral sci-fi film I’ve ever seen.  There’s influences from 2001, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Yet Arrival comes across as a wholly original film all its own.  Villeneuve once agains delivers an amazing film that proves he’s in the upper echelon of directors working today.  However, whereas Sicario and Prisoners were somewhat cynical films, Arrival is the complete opposite of that.  Arrival exudes optimism in the face of pain and I mean that in the best possible way.  (By the way anyone worried about Villeneuve screwing up next year’s Blade Runner 2049, you can put those worries to bed.)

For those of you who prefer your science fiction in the vein of Independence Day or Armageddon, this is not the film for you.  This is a very contemplative film akin to Blade Runner, one that, much like Ridley Scott’s film, examines the big questions.  Also like Blade Runner, it’s a movie you can watch multiple times and pick up something new every time.  It’s a commentary on love and loss, pain and grief, how we perceive ourselves and others.  Eric Heisserer’s brilliant script  while ostensibly a film about language (Adams’ character after all is a linguist) contains a deeper meaning about communication.  Or if you will miscommunication.  For example, at one point in the movie there’s a discussion regarding the word “weapon” and how “weapon” could actually mean “tool” depending on your point of view.  Words for example can be weapons, a weapon for positive change.  You only need to look at Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to see the truth of that.  The fact that Villeneuve can blend all these themes to create a cohesive story is a true testament to his brilliance as a director.

However, the most important theme in Arrival is the age-old question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”  This is a question that Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber and his superiors are trying to have answered.  However, that question is not just for the heptapods but for humanity as well.  The US government has already come to the conclusion that it’s to sow discord and foment war.  Living in that bubble makes them jump at shadows and take words like “weapon” at face value.  This mentality ensures that you stay within your own echo chamber and never have an opportunity to resolve issues in a meaningful way.  The theme is a repudiation of ideologies like isolationism and nationalism.  It’s an indictment and a chastising of the whole human race.  People sometimes wonder; if an advanced alien race exists, why haven’t they made contact with humans?  Look at the actions of the human race in the last 200 years (Hell the last year) and  you have your answer.


From a visual standpoint, Arrival is nothing short of phenomenal.  There’s a panoramic shot when Banks first arrives at the site of the ship that is one of the best shots in the history of cinema, period.  Cinematographer Bradford Young captures both the grandeur of the aliens’ spacecraft and the breathtaking landscape of Montana.  Yet he’s also able to capture the intimate moments between Adams, Renner, and the two heptapods who they lovingly name Abbott and Costello.  Johann Johannsson’s brilliant and moving score complements Young’s cinematography, at times operatic and rousing, while other times subtle and heartfelt.

Arrival‘s performances are just as important as the themes it relays.  Every actor is fully committed.  Whitaker, while a career military man, empathizes with Banks and Donnelly’s goals.  There’s a real conflict between his loyalty and the bigger picture.  Renner meanwhile is his normal reliable self.  His Donnelly grows throughout Arrival.  Donnelly’s relationship with Banks and his  evolution from a single-minded scientist to someone who sees the value of true communication, serves as a microcosm of society’s potential.  Even government agent Halpern (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg) has never been better.  He represents the danger of narrow-minded bureaucratic thinking.


However, the real star of the film is Amy Adams.  Arrival is ultimately Dr. Louise Banks’ journey.  Adams flat-out owns this role and her performance is sure to net her another Oscar* nomination.  What her ultimate purpose in the heptapods’ story and how it plays out on a global stage is staggering.  She’s a grieving mother yet she knows how important her contribution is to preventing a worldwide conflict.  Her performance asks, how do we confront grief?  How do we find purpose again after the loss of a child?  And most importantly, is the human condition, the journey of life worth it in spite of the pain you are bound to experience?  These are deep philosophical questions at play here and one thing you can be sure of:  Arrival will make you think.

I can’t emphasize how much I loved Arrival.  It’s easily one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen and maybe the most important.  Arrival is optimistic but never descends into the realm of hokey.  It’s a significant, timely, and socially relevant film.  And after this past year, after all the strife and division globally, goddamn if this isn’t the movie the world needs right now.


*Speaking of Oscars, if any science fiction film ever deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s this one.


My rating:  An OVERWHELMING 10/10

Would I:  A) Buy this movie B) Accept as a gift C) Burn on site   Answer: A

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