Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Review: Arrival

Cert: 12A / 116 mins / Dir. Denis Villeneuve / Trailer

I shall have to tread lightly here, since the real power of Arrival lies in a spoiler-free first viewing. That said, I know I'm going to enjoy the hell out of watching it again at least once, too.

When twelve gigantic alien Shells suddenly and silently arrive at unrelated positions around the globe, the authorities scramble to ascertain who is inside them, why they're here and what they'll do to achieve that why. The US military calls upon the services of highly experienced translator Louise (Amy Adams) to decode noises they've recorded, but her learning curve of communication with the visitors*1 is hampered by the un-cooperation of international governments, their sense of paranoia and increasingly itchy trigger-fingers…

All that's just one part of the film, of course, and not even the largest one. Running parallel to the muted Independence Day plot is a story of loss, grief and resolution, but always with an eye on the hypernatural. Make no mistake, the core of Arrival is distinctly heavyweight, yet only as much as the audience will want it to be. At times it's deliciously cynical; while the film tends to focus on the US-based response team itself, glimpses of news footage illustrate my own long-held belief that in the event of a grandiose extra-terrestrial arrival, general society would, to put it delicately, go completely to shit. So it's hardly a barrel of laughs for the times we're living in. Additionally, the Hard Sci-Fi™ part of the movie (ie, the nuts and bolts plot rather than what the film is actually about) can feel heavy-handed every time someone in a military uniform scowls and talks about nuking the Shells. That side of the story is one of the few things that its showier (albeit emptier) relative actually did quite well, although if I need reassurance that humanity are dicks, I can switch on the news, thanks.

But Arrival holds the attention. Much like the gradual communication breakthrough between Louise and the Heptapod visitors, the film takes a while to go from being interesting to being intriguing. The story never drags its heels, but the setups it carefully assembles during the first act are deliberately disingenuous. The payoff is worth it though, a section of the film I watched whilst grinning like an idiot.

If you couldn't tell by the trailer, this is really Amy Adams' movie, though and through. The supporting cast are reliable enough, but Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner appear to have been cast purely to give the poster of a philosophical sci-fi movie a bit more mainstream pull. Neither really have roles justifiable of the casting or with enough for them to actually do. Tonally it has more in common with director Villeneuve's Prisoners than most alien-invasion flicks, but the emotionally profound element seems to be fighting with an intriguing sci-fi plot device (which also seems to be fighting with the aforementioned impatient-man-in-camouflage-is-impatient). While the central elements of the screenplay are explained, I'd have liked to see them more thoroughly explored. But that's a discussion for next time.

Short version: The film stayed with me, I really enjoyed it.

I think the film's ending will be the real Rorschach test for audiences, though.
Not because the events are open to interpretation but, ironically, precisely the opposite.

Go and watch Arrival before somebody spoils it for you.

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Jurassic Park, Prisoners, The Others.
No, really

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
For the atmosphere and immersion, yes.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does. Although probably not everything I wanted from it (hardly the fault of the film).

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Not quite.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Not at all.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Saw Gerrera's in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Heptopods, as the seven-legged, faceless creatures are dubbed in the film. While our view of the aliens is often limited, they reminded me a lot of a hyper-intelligent spider-phase of Dagobah's Gnarltrees.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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