ARRIVAL (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Review by Gilbert Seah
The Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve has never failed to impress. From his early French Canadian films UN 32 AOUT SUR TERRE and MAELSTROM to his English Hollywood films SICARIO, PRISONERS and ENEMY, Villenueve has transcended different genres though his films share one common trait. There is the human angst mixed into a thriller/mystery story. The same can be said in his latest, most ambitious and biggest production to date – ARRIVAL. The ARRIVAL here could refer ever to the first contact of the aliens or the birth of the baby girl to the film’s protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
As in any good mystery thriller, Villenueve whets the audience’s appetite at the film’s start by teasing them with the voiceover by Dr. Banks. “I used to think this was the beginning of your story that we are bound by time and by its order.” And then as she holds up her baby daughter, saying: “Come back to me.” Why is she saying this to her baby and why is the order of time being questioned. The question is answered as the film unfolds. The pleasure of this film lies not in an action packed climax but the revelation of the mystery of the reason the aliens arrive, in 12 simultaneous locations around the world. ARRIVAL is a thinking man’s sci-fi and also a very satisfying one.
When the film opens, 12 alien spacecraft land around the world. Linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the US military to obtain the answer to one question: “What do they want?” Arriving in Montana, working under the leadership of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise and Ian are only remotely aware that their lives and the future of humanity are about to become inextricably linked. As the unlikely pair collaborate to solve this extraterrestrial translation puzzle, 11 other teams around the world are attempting to do the same.
Unlike other films like GRAVITY, ARRIVAL begins with the intimate personal story of Dr. Banks and ties the worldly events to her. In contrast to GRAVITY, for example, where the personal life of Sandra Bullock’s character is only tied in (her miscarriage) half way through the film or in THE MARTIAN where Matt Damon’s personal life is next to non-existent, the only mention being his tenure at a university. ARRIVAL has the audience connected with the protagonist well way before the alien arrival and the arrival totally affects her life.
The film also cleverly teases with questions like: Why do the doors of the spaceship open every 18 hours? Or “Why are there spaceships in 12 simultaneous locations?
The film also celebrates the human being’s ability to communicate by focusing on the fundamentals. The spill by Dr. Banks on how for example, a language like chess could affect mis-communication is excellent thinking fodder.
Bradford Young’s arresting cinematography, Johanna Jóhannsson’s haunting score (especially during the beginning and ending credits), and long-time collaborator Patrice Vermette’s minimalist production design (the monolithic look of the spaceship) all aid in creating the mystery atmosphere surrounding the alien arrival.
ARRIVAL also challenges the audience’s logic in appreciating the science of time. Though the notion is rather incredible, the film succeeds in making the audience think that all is possible. A true test of a good film is whether the film survives a repeat screening. After first seeing ARRIVAL first at TIFF and now again, ARRIVAL still amazes.
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