Director: Denis Villeneuve

Year: 2016

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Running Time: 116mins

Arrival is based on a short story called Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang. We are introduced to 12 monolithic spaceships that have appeared at various locations around the world and upon their arrival the US army co-opt one of the worlds best linguists, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), into working with them to try to communicate with the extraterrestrial lifeforms. Alongside Dr Banks is Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist and both were recruited by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to do the intellectual legwork to work out Why are they here?

Despite this extraterrestrial synopsis we are immediately thrown off at the start of the film. A voiceover narration introduces us to a sequence of the happy life of a mother and daughter which slowly morphs into teenage angst then to devastating despair at the eventual loss of her precious little girl to cancer.

We follow the efforts of Dr Banks and Dr Donnelly as they probe and change tack to advance their understanding of the visitors language in the hope of forming the question that everyone wants to know. Pushed to the limits with ever increasing pressure the two intellectuals are forced to make some risky decisions. The main focus is on Dr Banks, almost completely. She is front and centre stage in almost all of the film, having to convey a wide variety of emotions and situation with little more than a look or a subtle movement. Amy Adams does this really well, flourishing in this role. Everyone else is reduced to supporting roles but they do them admirably with their limited time and focus.


Visually it is an impressive piece of work. Particularly with the vistas of Dr Banks’ house overlooking the water and the absolutely fantastic work on the sweeping entry into the Montana field where the US ship was situated, clouds rolling in off the hills as we move towards and rotate around the base and the ship. For the most part it has a muted colour scheme which contrasts with the many flashes that Dr Banks has which are bright and vivid, defining them as separate. The cinematography of Bradford Young is considered and works well. The monoliths are dark, monochromatic objects housing the aliens, the humans are initially clothed in bright orange hazmat suits and it becomes clear that it is only when Dr Banks removes her suit, revealing an outfit akin to the colour scheme of the ship, that she makes her breakthrough in conversing with them, almost like she is joining them, thinking like them, being like them.

This film may be about aliens arriving, our first contact with other sentient life but this isn’t just a Sci-Fi film in my eyes. This is a dissection of human behaviour using the vantage point of another species to highlight our successes and failings as humanity, our ability to cooperate but also our differences. This film revolves around communication. The main premise professes to be of the human-alien kind but, in reality, this film is about the human-human kind and it is the contrast in these communications that emphasises the issues that are inherent in our world today; lots of different nations not talking to each other. With the startling news of the arrival of the dozen ships the various countries start out well with good collaboration, working together to find out why these heptapods are here but, over time, the self-protection instinct kicks in and the nations become insular and inward looking, cutting off the collaboration element, and this change in behaviour eventually leads to a very real threat to the world as a whole, risking what could have been the most important event in human history (but this threat is not made explicit).

As a sci-fi film it is certainly different from most others that have come before, it is inventive and thoughtful, doesn’t pander to the lowest denominator but allows the audience to learn with the film as it unfolds, nothing spoon-fed and it must be commended for this approach. Director Denis Villeneuve crafts a really good tale that is centred more around humans than the amazingness of the alien visitors. He is fast becoming a director of fantastic merit and it will be telling how he handles the Blade Runner film due out next year. From his past work (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy, Polytechnique) he has an obvious eye for picking an interesting angle to tell his story and extracting some amazing performances from his cast.

There is lots to think about with this film, lots to reflect upon once it has been and gone and this only adds to it’s value.

Spoiler warning

There is so much to contemplate with this film, so much to investigate and ponder over. This film is a puzzle. You don’t know the lay of the land when you begin (although the narration gives you a big hint that it isn’t the proper start to the story, giving you pause to wonder, briefly, what is before you are swept away into the tide of wonder). And it works well as a time shifting story, with knowledge passing from time to time due to learning the language of the Heptapods, and Dr Banks uses this to solve the puzzle, further confirming the theoretical viewpoint that language can alter the way that you think, that you perceive life. With the reveal tying up most of the loose strings it brings Dr Donnelly into focus as more of a major part than he first seems. It also puts a lot of this films more emotional moments into context. That said, it does it very well and the exposition of it is well handled, leading to a big “oh!” moment. The plot twist does come at you quite fast, accompanying quite a lot of information, but if you are paying attention to the story it will all make perfect sense. Although the cause-effect nature of the resolution felt a little bit forced which is out of place with the rest of the film.


The cyclical elements of the logograms (the alien’s written language) again points to a cycle, being non-linear, the ability to come back around. This leads to the perception of choice – do we have a say in what happens or is it pre-ordained? If we have the ability to choose, would we do the same all over again, knowing the consequences? This is particularly prevalent with Dr Banks and her relationship with Dr Donnelly as she obviously told him about what happens to their daughter but she decided to do it anyway, and he can’t reconcile himself with this decision and this explains his absence when Hannah is older. Also the name Hannah is a palindrome, can be read both ways, another hint at the way that this film can be viewed, again not being standardly linear.

The way that the film unfolds is extremely well done and on reflection it works even better. Quite a few people have said that it works even better on a second viewing and I can see this viewpoint being beneficial to better understanding the structure that is so very well constructed by Villeneuve. It is not a perfect film, there are moments of slowness, some weaker characters and a slightly forced resolution but it is  also profound and thought provoking; a film to watch and savour.


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