Smart Scifi is quite a rare thing nowadays. In times where Visual FX can do pretty much anything a creative mind can come up with, we tend to get movies that blow things out of proportion with gratuitous and bombastic thunderstorms of action setpieces. In the past years we have had a ton of movies that left us pretty much numb due to the bombardment of visual noise on screen. So it is remarkable to get a quiet film with seamlessly integrated VFX. VFX that are just there to complement the story and not the other way around. Plus… one of the smartest movies we have gotten in a very long time. It’s a type of movie I always wanted to see and waited a long time for it.
Arrival tells the story of expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams). When one morning Mankind discovers that we are not alone in the universe anymore. 12 mysterious ships appear. These ships are positioned around the globe, in places that do not seem to have a connection. Louise meets Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who is recruiting her for a very special job. He wants her to find a way to communicate with the beings in one of the ships, positioned in Montana. Along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) she is tasked to find out why the Aliens are there and what they want. In the meanwhile we get glimpses of how the world reacts. In the time we watch Louise and Ian trying to talk to the Alien beings, we see and learn how differently other nations try to establish communication. A month of research goes by and tension all over the world is rising. Our team makes little breakthroughs and suddenly gets an answer to their question of what the Aliens want. Another team is also getting an answer to that question and it freaks people out. Louise and Ian try their best to explain that the answers they got could be interpreted a lot of different ways. Throughout the experience we see Louise having personal visions, dreams or memories. Of course we immediately think about flashbacks. But there is something else going on with these visions or dreams.
The movie is successfully playing with so many different ideas and concepts about time, space, communication. It’s hard to talk about it without entering spoiler territory. Let’s just say the film offers some nice twists and that said twists even work on multiple levels. But it’s not the kind of movie that ends and leaves you completely wondering what just happened. At least it wasn’t that way for me. I saw multiple clear hints throughout the film that made complete sense at the end of the film.
The story is told from the very personal perspective of Louise. We don’t get to see too much stuff from anywhere else than her immediate surroundings. So it is not a movie that goes for Independence Day kind of eye candy and different locations from all over the world. And that is what works in favour of this film. We keep things in one place and the audience wants to solve the mysteries along with the characters on screen. The film is also shot very personal and intimate. We get a lot of close ups that completely focus on reactions of the characters. I was constantly asking myself how I would react in the situations we face along with the characters in the film. We still get a lot of gorgeous wide open camera shots. The scene when we arrive on location and the camera captures the scene with the Alien ship, right then and there when Louise is seeing it the first time. It’s so well timed and gave me goosebumps. Same thing when they enter the ship for the first time. A lot of credit goes to the musical score in these moments as well. It’s the best original score I’ve heard in a movie in a very long time. A lot of films completely sound the same nowadays. Not this one. It got its own character in pretty much everything. And most importantly… it’s memorable.
Now let’s talk about the Elephant in the room. After I saw the film, I immediately drew similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And this general consensus that Nolan is the “thinking man’s Blockbuster director”. Don’t get me wrong, I like Nolan’s films just fine. However! Both films are hardcore Scifi. Interstellar is also a very scientific movie much like Arrival is. In their central core both films are about love and time. When Interstellar was released I heard some folks say stuff like “this film will be remembered!”. I was honestly shaking my head when I heard that. While Interstellar certainly is no bad movie, I felt the love component was so hamfisted and cheesy that it really hurted the overall experience and message. This, on the other hand, is where Arrival shines. Every plot element is so well integrated whithout ever going into cheesy, tearjerking territory. And yes, there surely are emotional scenes in Arrival. Their execution and relationship with what’s going on in the film (storywise and scientifically) is much more sound though. So it all made sense in the end! Something I can’t say about Interstellar. Another thing I can’t say about Interstellar but will do about Arrival is… Arrival will be remembered! It’s a film that asks important questions and manages to give answers to these questions! Answers are another thing I missed getting from Interstellar.
When picking out negative things it is not easy to find some. That, of course, depends on your taste in movies and how you watch them. But there are a couple of things I wished would have gotten a little more attention. While the scientific part does have its place in the film, I wished they would have given it a little more breathing room. It would have been fascinating to see a little more of the process, Louise and Ian have to go through, finding and establishing a way of communication with the Aliens. The audience doesn’t have to wait very long before getting a look at the Aliens (or at least how they generally look like). Maybe it would have been a little more exciting to hide them a tiny bit longer. The Alien design is not amazingly spectacular either. Which, from my perspective is fine. For the job the Aliens have to do, they look completely okay. And that’s all the negative stuff (if you can call it that) I can find about the film.
In the end the title ‘Arrival’ has a number of meanings. Which you will discover when you watch the film close enough. There are many ways you can watch this film. Either as a straight forward first contact film or a very well written character study or a parable about the times we live in… the movie lets the audience decide and is not forcing the audience into a certain direction. That’s quite remarkable and I am very excited to see what the director Denis Villeneuve will do in the future. His next stop… Blade Runner 2049.
A 9/10 for me.