'Arrival' Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
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Arrival is a movie sold as a simple tale of aliens making first contact, and of the struggles to communicate with them. However, appearances can be deceiving in many ways, both for us and for the characters in the story. In fact, the way it unfolds makes it very difficult to craft a review without getting into spoilers, especially since Arrival is a movie one should know as little about as possible.

Nevertheless, the basic setup can still be described, although it can't really do it justice. And in spite of trying to be as specifically spoiler free as possible here, the mere hints could be too spoilery for readers until they see Arrival for themselves.

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOLLOW

One day, the Earth is paralyzed when 12 alien ships descend on the planet in 12 different countries, with America’s ship landing in Montana. There is no way or method to communicate with the visitors, so the U.S. delegation calls on linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks to help them find one. Working alongside physicist Ian Donnelly and army Colonel Weber, Louise is brought onto the ship every 18 hours, trying to decipher the symbols emitted by the two creatures behind a barrier. Although decoding their words becomes easier over time, decoding their actual intentions is another matter, especially with other countries fearful enough to spark global war if the truth isn't translated in time.

Arrival has provoked obvious comparisons to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, back when not all alien movies had to overload on action and CGI. Yet in the opening sequence, director Denis Villeneuve actually evokes memories of Up, or more specifically its most famous montage. It casts a pall even after the aliens arrive, as the wide shots of Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young, along with Louise carrying on her daily tasks even as the world stands still, reflect a world of isolation and numbing routine.

The work a director and cinematographer can do to evoke those moods is still more valuable than any computer effect or bombastic sequence, at least with the right ones. Villeneuve did this with Roger Deakins when he directed Sicario, and working with acclaimed Selma cinematographer Young takes it one step further. The awe that they inspire through long tracking shots, the navigation of the alien ship and the build up to meeting the creatures is close to masterful, although it makes it more abrupt when they cut away just as they show themselves.

Those kind of left turns become more common as things go on, with Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer making it a point to zig where most others would zag. It's also unique enough that the aliens occupy Montana instead of a major American city, unlike most any alien movie, and that the creatures' design kind of resembles giant human hands more than past movie aliens. And of course, alien movies where communication is more important than combat are rarer than they were in Close Encounters's time.

Once Louise starts to make headway in talking to them, however, Arrival becomes more of a mind game. As the mysteries keep piling up, as other human forces become more erratic and as more questions develop than answers, the movie heads into slower and less personal stretches. The puzzle threatens to become more important than the people and issues, which is a bit of a letdown after how things are set up early on.

It is a different story whenever Louise starts to experience vivid memories, once she exposes herself to the ship's atmosphere. As they increase, it becomes apparent that language isn't the only important method of communication or understanding. But with time running short and some trigger fingers getting itchier at home and abroad, a clearer understanding is needed.

By this point, Arrival becomes a movie that will live or die by its answers, which isn't always a promising thing. For all the occasionally breathtaking visual heights that Villeneuve and Young reach, for all of the narrative twists to the genre that Villeneuve and Heisserer bring, and for all the head scratching guessing games, they risk making it all the more disappointing if none of it makes sense. With something like this, it makes it a real cheat if the destination ruins the journey, as countless disappointing series finales of popular TV shows proved over the years.

But those aren't the memories evoked when the revelations finally come.

In fact, what Villeneuve and Heisserer pull off is a narrative gut punch, the kind of which perhaps hasn't been seen in theaters since The Sixth Sense. If one wants to include television, the heights of Lost can be added as a benchmark too.

Ever since the likes of The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects and Fight Club, more than a few films tried to recapture the shock and surprise of a third act twist. The vast majority have fallen short, either by those high standards or by just being bad movies before and after the surprises.

Even M. Night Shyamalan ruined his A-list career with bigger failures to recapture The Sixth Sense magic, further proving just how elusive it is. And countless TV shows like Lost have lived and died with big game-changing twists, only with diminishing returns most of the time as viewers get wise to their tricks.

In keeping all that in mind, it makes it all the more impactful and powerful when such twists do land. When they land for Arrival, it takes the film from a brain teaser into something much more than previously imagined.

The Sixth Sense is a more apt comparison than The Usual Suspects and Fight Club, or even the first Planet of the Apes. Those big surprises were powered more by plot and mind games than character, and were brilliant enough to get away with it. But The Sixth Sense and now Arrival are examples of how to go much deeper with such twists, as they are not only character driven, but change the whole way one thinks of both the movie and the characters as well.

Yet with The Sixth Sense, its massive revelation came at the very end. For Arrival, the game-changing twist to what we thought we knew is only the beginning.

In this sort of movie, it can be overwhelming to watch such twists and turns and try to keep up with them, even when they are done correctly. That’s why they need the right human anchor to take us through them, to mirror our shock and our growing understanding, and to be a reflection and even a litmus test for us when they take action.

With Arrival, it lucked out to have one of the best in Amy Adams.

Adams already proves in the first two acts that she can carry a movie and a character just by her face alone, without needing to go big at all. But that skill is never more valuable than in the last 30 or so minutes, grounding Louise and the entire movie at large to make these revelations more than just plot twists. While she is a five-time Oscar nominee who has been building up one of the great resumes for an actress in the last 10+ years, what Adams does to make Arrival’s biggest moments land on an emotional and intellectual level is perhaps among her greatest feats.

To those who might think Adams is too muted and subdued, Jeremy Renner counterbalances her with more lively one-liners, while Forest Whitaker does his best to overcome a fairly pointless Boston accent. But this is mainly Adams’ show when it’s not Villeneuve’s,Young’s or Heisserer’s.

When the credits finally roll, it actually brings a sense that things are incomplete, since there are still some things that remain unanswered and holes that appear unfilled. Perhaps that undercuts the impact at first, yet Arrival is a movie that one has to sit on for a while, which requires a deeper memory and perhaps even the need to talk to someone else about it. That alone is also a rarer quality these days, which is another point for Arrival’s ambition.

Maybe not all the pieces really fit together or are completely answered, even after thinking deeper. It may demand a second viewing for that, and it pretty much insists on it in the way everything is thrown into a different light by the end. But the understanding that does come over time provokes issues that go beyond sci-fi, aliens or even language.

The issues that come up at the end may somewhat overshadow the earlier messages about language, and communication gaps between different species and our own. In fact, there’s a case that those themes were really red herrings all along, which might make the first two acts a bit of a cheat. However, communication and understanding other species, humanity and even ourselves prove to go beyond just mastering language.

By exploring this through the experiences and the ultimate choices of Louise, it is how Arrival makes an impact on the heart instead of just the head. It makes us see the movie through a different perspective than when we first came in, in a film where learning to do that with aliens and each other is really the entire point.

But in the end, the question Arrival leaves us with isn’t one about the universe, first contact, human interaction or even language barriers. It presents us with a conclusion that can be debated on many levels, and one where not everyone may agree that the right thing was done. Villeneuve and Heisserer seem to take a side, yet they leave plenty of room to disagree.

Ultimately, Arrival is a film that asks all of us “What would you do?” in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen two hours earlier. Perhaps a viewer’s answer and perspective may color how they see the film as a whole, and maybe not in a positive fashion. But getting to that question and what it represents means as much as what our answers might be.

Arrival presents itself as a story that examines how we might use or misuse grand powers like language and communication. But it comes to examine even grander powers than that, the ways they are used for such things as unity, life and even death, and how these uses reflect the most loving and somewhat selfish parts of us.

Yet as stated above, it all comes down to asking “What would you do?” with such gifts and more, and whether our answers would match the ones we ultimately see on screen. That debate is what may help keep Arrival in the forefront of viewers’ minds long after they walk out of the theater.

Prisoners, Sicario and now Arrival have built Villeneuve up as a director who hardly makes normal films in time honored genres. This is a rise approaching the standards of a pre-Batman Christopher Nolan, which is more apt since he’s currently making his own leap to big budget blockbusters with a Blade Runner sequel on the way. It may not sound like it leaves much room to keep being experimental and different, but neither did The Dark Knight movies before Nolan went to a bigger level.

When he did, it gave Nolan clout to do movies like Interstellar, which was one big giant sci-fi puzzle. Yet when it gave its answers, it got too tripped up in mind games, heady concepts and other stuff that overwhelmed the characters’ more emotional revelations. In this context, Villeneuve has already outdone Nolan with a sci-fi puzzle that doesn’t get so lost intellectually, and doesn’t undercut the character-driven emotion that takes it a step deeper.

Arrival may not be best appreciated until after the movie is over, or maybe until a second viewing is over. Either way, viewers need to schedule their first and second viewings as soon as possible, at least before someone much less vague than this reviewer says too much in front of them.