Arrival (2016)

2016 #179
Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

This review sort of contains spoilers.

Arrival

An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

We're only human after all

Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

Majestic

Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

5 out of 5

Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

* Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

The Up-to-Date Monthly Update for November 2016

The penultimate monthly update for 2016 has a higher-than-usual compliment of films from 2016. How up-to-date of me.


#172 Bridesmaids (2011)
#173 Love & Friendship (2016)
#174 Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
#175 The Pianist (2002)
#176 Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)
#177 Swiss Army Man (2016)
#178 Suicide Squad (2016)
#179 Arrival (2016)
#180 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
#181 The Deer Hunter (1978)
#182 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
#183 Star Trek Beyond (2016)
#184 Napoleon (1927), aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance
#185 Jason Bourne (2016)
Arrival

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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  • I watched 14 new films again this month (same as last). That makes this my 30th consecutive month with 10 or more new films.
  • As I mentioned, there were quite a few films from 2016. The total is ten, to be precise, or 71.4% of this month’s viewing. I’ll rate them when I review them, but scroll down to the Arbies for more about which I liked and disliked.
  • I spent three nights watching the 5½ hours of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, which made its hotly-anticipated Blu-ray debut this month. Still only counts as one film, though.
  • Making up for last month, I found time for two WDYMYHS films. Both are excoriating depictions of wartime: Roman Polanski’s story of life in the Warsaw ghettoes during World War 2, The Pianist; and Michael Cimino’s controversial take on the Vietnam war and its effect on (American) combatants, The Deer Hunter.



The 18th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Quite a few enjoyable films this month, particularly among all those 2016 ones, but the one of the highest quality was definitely Denis Villeneuve’s venture into science-fiction drama, Arrival.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Conversely, the weakest film this month also comes from 2016. I wanted to find the critics were wrong and side with the audiences who boosted it into the top 75 highest grossing films of all time, but no, Suicide Squad is a disappointing mess.

Longest Film of the Year (So Far)
I watched the ’59 Ben-Hur back in September, a film whose notoriously epic running time — 222 minutes, or 3¾ hours — would, most years, stand as unlikely to be surpassed. Thanks to the BFI, however, it has: Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoleon is a full 111 minutes longer at 333 minutes, aka 5½ hours.

Most Consistent Use of a Song
They’re back again: after 14 years and five films, Jason Bourne still ends with Moby’s Extreme Ways, just like every other film in the series. Never may it end.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
I confess to being slightly surprised by this month’s most-seen post. Besting several new releases (Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders was 2nd) and all-time favourites (Star Wars was 3rd), this month’s victor was my review of Denis Villeneuve’s arty psychological thriller Enemy.



Films that broke new ground rub shoulders with ones that settled into comfortable grooves, with everything from children’s movies about toys to adult movies about puppets.


As regular readers may have ascertained from the occasional reference I’ve made, I’m going to be away for a chunk of December. It’s not actually some big secret, it just wasn’t especially pertinent ’til now. We’re off on a family holiday to Hogwarts… in sunny Orlando, Florida. And all the other stuff, like Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center, all that jazz; but it was inspired by, as grown-up adult human beings, wanting to go to the Harry Potter theme parks. Something something for all ages, something something young at heart, etc.

So as this is posted, I’m currently… sat at home in the UK, because we fly tomorrow. Anyway, that means this blog will be quieter than normal for a bit — and as I’m away for 72% of the time it would cover, no advent calendar this year. I know I’m severely damaging your enjoyment of the holiday season, but it can’t be helped. Sorry. I’d love to tell you that I nonetheless have a mass of reviews scheduled to post so it’ll be like I’m not even gone, but I don’t. However, my 100 Favourites will continue as advertised (next up: #95 on Sunday), and there will be a couple of other reviews scattered in between, too. I may check in on comments from time to time as well, what with the connectivity of our modern world — so don’t be a stranger, y’hear?

It’ll undoubtedly have an effect on how many films I watch, though — will December destroy the 30-month run of 10+ films?!