This is Part Two of my 2017 Oscar Watch where I watch all of the Best Picture nominees in the weeks running up to the Academy Awards. For all other reviews, click here:
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- “La La Land”
- “Hacksaw Ridge”
- “Hidden Figures”
For all of my 2017 Academy Awards picks, click here.
The first time I watched “Arrival,” I fell asleep 30 minutes into it. For almost any other movie, that would be the death knell for my praise of it. Instead, “Arrival” wholeheartedly deserves the Academy’s recognition due to the quiet, introspective way that it analyzes humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestrial species. It is a modern classic—period.
Unlike “Independence Day” or “War of the Worlds,” pyrotechnics and explosions do not commence as soon as the aliens touch down on Earth. Twelve identical ships arrive in different countries around the globe and the public reaction is diverse yet authentic. Some citizens immediately call for war, a product of fear, while others call for deeper understanding of the visitors. In addition to the moral undertone that elevates this seemingly traditional sci-fi flick, its introspection on human nature further accentuates the brilliance and intelligence of its melancholic, revelatory journey.
Shortly after the aliens land, the U.S. military calls upon linguist Louise Banks, played masterfully by Amy Adams, to try and translate as well as communicate with the aliens. Despite some initial trepidation from Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker, Louise is eventually brought to the site of the spacecraft. Joining Louise is physicist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.
The Terrestrial Trio
First and foremost the acting on display in “Arrival” is stunning. Adams, most notably, is the star of the show and she effectively plays an intellectual with a somber past while never overacting or overtly explaining what pushes her to connect with the extraterrestrials. Louise feels like a real person and her motivations are obscure—this brings both a sense of realism as well as mystery to an already thrilling story.
Forest Whitaker is similarly talented, but it is underutilized in the third act; in fact, he completely disappears. Whitaker is a known quantity in terms of his acting prowess and he pulls off the role of a straight-laced Colonel with ease. He is never really given any dramatic lines to chew on, but like Louise, he is an entirely believable character who is driven by his sense of duty and rationality.
Rounding out the trio, Jeremy Renner gives the strongest acting performance of his entire career. Some may argue that he was better in “The Hurt Locker,” but I think his performance in “Arrival” is certainly on par. Whereas Louise is fueled by the creative analysis of language and Weber is a soldier, Donnelly is a scientist who must question his own understanding of the world in light of the events that are unfolding around him.
Together, these three characters act as a solid allegory for the world at large and the way that people would logically react to the otherworldly situation. However, there is no main character that is overtly aggressive towards the aliens, this role is relegated to anonymous citizens, soldiers and, in a somewhat gross instance, the Chinese military. For a movie about asking questions before judging someone or something, its prejudice against the Chinese is somewhat jarring. Ultimately, this minor gripe does not take away from the superbly crafted film on display.
Unfortunately, I cannot say much more about the plot without divulging major spoilers, but I will say that the aliens do receive the screen time they deserve and you don’t have to wait for more than thirty minutes—those who saw Gareth Edward’s “Godzilla” in 2014 will understand why not showing the “monster” until the end leaves a lot to be desired. Once the aliens are on screen, they are absolutely grotesque and elicit the type of horror that would logically make any person scared. Other than those plot points, you owe it to yourself to watch this film and uncover the mystery for yourself. The most analogous sci-fi movie that “Arrival” can relate to in terms of plot is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Although it is a high bar to achieve, “Arrival” also matches Kubrick’s quintessential sci-fi film in terms of its direction.
Soon Denis Villeneuve will be a household name and “Arrival” lends more credence to this claim. After 2013’s “Prisoners,” 2015’s “Sicario,” and now 2016’s “Arrival,” Villeneuve already has an impressive body of work behind him. In addition, 2017 will see Villeneuve directing the sequel to “Blade Runner,” wonderfully titled “Blade Runner 2049.” While I would scoff at any director taking a stab at expanding Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Blade Runner 2049” is in good hands—if you haven’t seen the teaser trailer for this movie, check it out here. If that were not enough to boost Villeneuve’s credentials, he will soon be directing “Dune,” a fresh take on Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi saga. Not only has Villeneuve proven himself as a masterful director of thrillers, he has now taken that flair into the sci-fi realm and, based on his choice of projects, that is where his true passion lies. As a nerd rooting for a fellow nerd, Villeneuve seems poised to join the ranks of Christopher Nolan and, if he is successful enough, even the legendary Steven Spielberg.
“Arrival” is simply more proof of Villeneuve’s unquestionable talent. Long panning shots set dark, uncomfortable imagery against melodic instrumental violin trills. Again, the parallels to “2001: A Space Odyssey” are undeniable. Villeneuve hangs on symmetrical, grandiose imagery for longer than he should (a la Kubrick), but manages to keep the film moving at a fast clip. The beautiful and poignant direction brings even more depth to an already dense film. At just over two hours, “Arrival” is the perfect length—it has a lot to say, but it says it without over-explaining or dumbing down its message for the audience. “Arrival” demands audience rumination and Villeneuve’s deliberately slow direction allows for contemplation in-between intellectually dense scenes.
Out of This World
“Arrival” is unlike any alien invasion movie you have ever seen. In fact, it’s unlike any science fiction film you have ever seen. Villeneuve has crafted a modern classic that sets the bar for what sci-fi films can achieve and gives hope to aspiring filmmakers who love the constantly cast-aside genre. Whereas other sci-fi films quickly devolve into explosions, “Arrival” is more interested in blowing your mind.