Arrival review: Big things come in small budgets
If there are any directors out there that really want to test their abilities, who really want to prove that they know exactly what they are doing and aren’t just there to take home a nice paycheck while making things explode real pretty, they should try making a sci-fi film on a budget. They will either be up for an award or they will be the next Uwe Boll.
Thankfully, Arrival is very much in the award category, something that should feel familiar to accolade-drenched director, Denis Villeneuve. His resume includes Oscar nominations, Palme d’or nods, and enough smaller awards to justify keeping a carpenter on retainer to constantly build new shelves for then all. Arrival should help add to that collection.
I’m going to be a little vague on the plot here. In fact, you may want to skip over the next two paragraphs altogether, because the less you know going in, the better. Seriously, you should bypass the description, I won’t take it personally. Just assume my description of the film is amazing and glorious and rejoin me afterward.
When 12 mysterious objects land around the globe, life on Earth changes forever. Their intentions are unclear, and they remain passive, creating an unsettling uncertainty. The visitors are willing to meet with humanity, but communication proves to be a challenge, as their language isn’t just difficult, it is, well, alien. It isn’t just a new type of language, it is a new way of thinking about communicating in general.
With governments around the world reluctantly working together to uncover why the visitors are here, Team ‘Murica turns to talented linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to decipher the complex language. With the help of physics professor Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks finds herself fighting against time to decipher what the aliens want, as conditions around the world begin to change.
If you skipped the two previous paragraphs as recommended, here’s what you missed: Arrival is about aliens and people trying to communicate with them. That should be enough to give you an idea of whether or not it’s the type of movie you want to see. And if you enjoy science fiction with an emphasis on the “science,” then you should go see Arrival.
Arrival is hard sci-fi, with an emphasis on the story over the effects. Once upon a time, a $43 million budget was considered decent, now it is a fraction of what a season of a major TV show costs. That doesn’t mean the movie is shot like an old episode of Doctor Who where everything was filmed in a rock quarry and a single hallway reshot from multiple angles. The effects look good, but there aren’t many of them. And that’s part of what makes the film work.
Arrival creates more tension from a single shot of people walking toward a smoke filled room with something vaguely moving in the distance than if aliens showed up on the White House lawn. What you don’t see is as effective as what you do, which is a sign of a movie that knows exactly what it wants. That idea is further justified when you look at it as a whole. Without dropping any spoilers, the movie is probably worth a second viewing to catch some of the deeper connections that aren’t apparent until the very end.
The film also manages to build tension through the apprehension of the characters without bogging things down with them being overly hesitant. It’s one thing for the characters to be scared, it’s another if the focus on that fear makes the plot drag.
Arrival takes a hard look at what the world would be like if the impossible suddenly happened. There’s truth in it, masquerading as fiction. How would the world react to aliens coming to Earth without clearly announcing their intentions? If we did meet a truly alien speices, where would we start in terms of opening a dialogue? Would it even be possible?
While the concept of communication is at the heart of Arrival, it presents the interesting parts of that without getting caught up in the grind of it. Arrival tries to keep things as grounded in reality as possible, which is easier said than done when it comes to the laborious process of translating a fundamentally different type of language.
It’s a highly technical subject that is by necessity, mercifully dumbed down – or at least glossed over – for a film audience. While the idea of unlocking an alien language may sound fascinating, there’s only so many scenes of a person staring intently at a computer that audiences could stand.
Part of what keeps the film moving through moments that teeter on being overly loaded with exposition is the performance from Adams. She conveys the fear and wonder of it all while still conveying the sense of scientific curiosity that drives the film. Renner and Forest Whitaker as the military liaison both add to the whole with nuanced performances, but this is Adams’ film, and she carries it with ease.
This review has admittedly been tough to write. Going into more detail might help to convince you that Arrival is worth seeing, but it would also reveal some of the moments that are best experienced in the theater. There are twists and surprises, but they are just part of the whole to be experienced.
Arrival review conclusion
Arrival is a smart film that doesn’t need heavy special effects to entertain; it does that with a compelling story and a performance from its star that deserves one of the bigger awards handed out during award season. She won’t win because most awards don’t give a damn about good sci- fi movies (see… pretty much every good sci-fi film ever made for proof of that), but it’s still a great effort and enough to earn Villeneuve a new shelf full of smaller accolades. It should also help to ease the fears of fans concerned about the Blade Runner sequel he is helming. If Villeneuve can make a compelling and thought-provoking sci-fi movie for less than it costs to make half a season of Game of Thrones, things are looking good.
Arrival won’t satisfy those looking for some explodey action, but it is refreshingly original. It’s also the best true sci-fi film of the year and one of the best of the year regardless of genre. Go see it.
Arrival is rated PG-13 with a running time of 116 minutes.