Before I say anything, I need to apologize if you were expecting a traditional non-spoiler review. Just in case you haven't seen it, you shouldn't read any further than this paragraph. If you want to look into the plot of the film, don't go any further than the trailers. I would actually argue not seeing the trailer in order to preserve the mystique beyond the elevator pitch, but I understand that going into a film blind isn’t something everyone like to do. Also, I have to apologize because Denis Villeneuve is my favorite director. I had a hard time keeping my expectations even remotely in check and staying objective during both viewings. Lastly, yes, I saw this twice in the very short time it's been in theaters.
Villeneuve’s latest works are deeply immersive in a way I expect from video games, but not from film. Sicario does a great job of capturing the confusion and darkness experienced by Emily Blunt’s character, using a scarcity of information to make its world more authentic. There are no big shoot-outs outside the cold open, and every action has a consequence, like murdering a low-level cop. It makes it easy to connect to a film beyond seeing it on a two-dimensional screen some distance in front of you, and Arrival takes the next step forward by incorporating the directing. There is never a scene where the camera gets ahead of Amy Adams in a new environment, either staying over the shoulder or switching to an almost first person perspective. It's not until the area is established that the camera start moving independently, when we can assume that Adams is comfortable. Coupled with the very real and nuanced world, you can find yourself in Adams and believe the world, despite the aliens and maybe thinking you have more in common with Jeremy Renner (a smart-ass and a nerd, who also pitches that we name the aliens Abbott and Costello). Watching initial news break out around Adams as she goes about her day and experiencing that initial disruption as the world becomes aware of its visitors is a nicely subtle way of introducing first contact. While Adams is talking to her mother, she tells her to stay off “that new channel, because they’re all idiots.” Adams even tries going back to work the next day and is met with an empty campus. Let’s also not gloss over how we never see the shell in any of the news reports due to military and governments blocking access. We, as the audience, never see anything until Adams does as she’s flown in, and in return we are met with the jaw-dropping shot of the obelisk-like shell standing in a field of fog rolling over the hills, mystical and unknowable.
It's also this film that proves Villeneuve fit to helm the next Blade Runner. Like the original, Arrival is an intelligent science fiction film that eliminates, or at least minimizes, the barrier to entry, unlike other films like Ex Machina. I consider Ex Machina to be among the best of last year, but the mountains of subtext can be indecipherable. My original plan for this review was a full blown analysis, but a second time through revealed an airtight plotline and subtle, non-distracting hints at an underlying theme. A scene that I didn’t initially understand was the bombing in the shell. We later learn that it was the work of a group of trigger happy rogue soldiers acting on very rational fears. One soldier, seen earlier talking to his hysterical wife and daughter over the phone, was present for the heptapod’s unnerving statement, “offer weapon.” He leads the mutinous gang that detonates explosives in the shell. Their actions underline the importance of communication and language. This is what the best science fiction has to offer: a far-out story based on real and important themes. Arrival comes at a time when we find ourselves on one of two sides trying to make sense of a divisive election, where the most important issue has been communicating ideas and values. Like Blade Runner, the movie’s questions about humanity and what it means to be human are more relevant than ever.
One thing that I can see getting on a few people’s nerves is trying to make sense of the how the heptapod’s language lets you see time non-linearly. The film never tries to explain any of it. The really easy counter is that since the film is so clear a first-person narrative, Adams wouldn’t ever really try to investigate their science since it's not her work, and by the time we learn the twist, the film is over. It may have to do with the source material being a short story and trying to preserve the essence and mystique by not exploring it analytically. Its an issue that I had after letting this sit on my mind for 24 hours, but I got over it not long after when I remembered another lines. “If you could see your whole life, would you change any of it?” “I don’t know, I’d probably say what I felt more often, but I thought the greatest part of this was meeting them. But it was meeting you.” First of all, excuse me if I didn’t get the lines exactly correct, but the short conversation in hindsight is about the journey, not the destination. So if the film has such an effect on you, yet you can’t help that one aspect wasn’t tailored exactly for you, does it really matter?
The news trailing the film is straight Oscar buzz and I agree with most of it. This is a clear nominee, if not a winner for Cinematography. It's on the same level as The Revenant, which did win. I would be surprised if this doesn’t get nominations for Director and Adapted Screenplay, but I could see it not winning mainly because I haven’t seen most of the other films getting Oscar buzz. People are also saying Amy Adams for Actress, but I doubt she’ll even get a nomination. Her performance is very subtle and carried by the screenplay. All of aside, I do believe it’s one of the best of the year and is most definitely my favorite. If this was your first time watching a Denis Villeneuve film, seriously watch his other work because he truly deserves much more appreciation that he currently gets.
"Curtains" is where you can catch movie reviews by the Metal Lifestyle staff.