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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘Arrival’ (2016): Denis Villenueve Tries Science-Fiction


Directed by: Denis Villeneuve || Produced by: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde

Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer ||  Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien

Music by: Johann Johannsson || Cinematography: Bradford Young || Edited by: Joe Walker || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 116 minutes

Hollywood is often criticized for dumbing down audience perceptions of “high-concept” blockbusters (whatever the hell that term means), favoring stylized digital excess over screenwriting depth and character cliches with corny one-liners over realistic development and believable dialogue; these often deserved, yet overblown criticisms via overeducated liberal arts students concentrate most consistently on big-budget science-fiction films from Star Wars (1977) to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Perhaps the most accurate complaints about these films regard how they have confused the general populace as to what the science-fiction genre actually means, forgetting the “science” part of that equation and replacing it with “fantasy.”


Top: Amy Adams (third from left) and Jeremy Renner (second from right) suit up as they prepare to meet the aliens for the first time. Middle: The team enters the antechamber where the aliens have prepared an atmospheric pressure suitable for their human guests. Bottom: The aliens communicate to Adams through a circular “alphabet.”

“Sci-fi” films like Star Wars have more in common with Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) than they do with Star Trek (1966-1969) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or even Aliens (1986). As Rich Evans of Red Letter Media once said, “Star Wars is fantasy with some space-paint on it.”

Though few cinephiles love Star Wars more than I, I’ll be the first nerd to admit that general audiences do indeed have a terrible impression of what the bulk of the science-fiction genre, both filmic and literary, represents and strives to do. For all its faults and overblown spectacle, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) was a true sci-fi movie with more on its mind than showy visuals or laser-powered action sequences. It is one of the few high-budget, true sci-fi blockbusters released worldwide in the past decade, along with Prometheus (2011) and District 9 (2009).

While Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival, like District 9, is on the cheaper end of the “big-budget” definition of Hollywood blockbusters, it is pure speculative sci-fi that embraces the power of empirical methodology to comment on both the human condition and the nature of broader human society. I am not as in love with it as others are or as I might have predicted, but this latest film from the acclaimed French-Canadian director is yet another eclectic success for the man who may be the greatest working Western filmmaker.

What I like about Arrival is its patience, its respect for actual science conducted by characters who act like real scientists (e.g. as in The Martian [2015], they are neither reclusive losers nor super-genius action stars), and its minimalist yet seamless FX. Examining the film from a broader cultural perspective, Arrival is not only an intellectual rebuttal to the likes of Independence Day (1996, 2016), but is also a less saccharine, less emotionally forced version of Interstellar or Contact (1997). It continues the same themes of relativity and the intersection of global progress with the individual’s self-actualization, but unlike Christopher Nolan’s 2014 epic or Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982), it doesn’t drown in tear-jerking character development — however solid the development of those movies’ characters were. On the other hand, Arrival doesn’t quite reach the cold, detached style of my favorite science-fiction films like the Alien (1979) series or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), but I give Arrival a pass on that for the most part given how that’s a subjective personal preference of mine.

The film’s emotional core and relatable lead characters (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) are what will allow it to connect with general audiences or make it acceptable home-viewing for the family or even date-night. There’s little here that should turn off most audiences given its lack of extreme gore, violence, sexuality, or head-scratchingly dense scientific theory. That being said, Arrival is all about communication and problem-solving, not shooting guns or violence in general. Despite this focus on oral or linguistic communication, Arrival is at its best when its communication is visual or audible only in the non-oratory sense. The film’s numerous flash-backs/flash-forwards make excellent use of racking focus, blocking, and telephoto shots, while its wide-angle money shots of the UFOs’ exterior are spaced accordingly for maximum emotional impact.

These visuals are aided by terrific pacing and a great atmospheric score from Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson. Music swells whenever Amy Adams (and thus, the audience) encounter a new part of the alien ship, the aliens themselves, or their technology, but in a way that feels deliberate without being on-the-nose. The film clocks in at an admirable 116 minutes, allowing time for the major characters to breathe without overstaying their welcome.

Perhaps the only elements of the movie I did not like were the design of the aliens and the few instances of narration by Amy Adams. Though the look of the extraterrestrials wasn’t a major point of the film, I still found them unimaginative at best and dull at worst, which took away some of the emotional weight from the later interactions with them. Adams’ voiceovers are also one of the few times the movie descends into cheesy territory, and I thought they were unnecessary given the informative, beautiful visuals.


Twelve spacecraft land on earth’s surface seemingly at random. This one hovers a few meters above the South China Sea.

I regret that Arrival was not the slam-dunk sci-fi feature I was hoping for, personally, but at this point I’m resigned to the fact that no film will be unless the Alien franchise gets a proper sequel. Arrival, while not Dennis Villeneuve’s best film, is another solid project from the versatile filmmaker, which bodes well for his upcoming Blade Runner (1982) sequel. Given that his skilled execution seems to scale with the budgets he’s given, that the man can handle everything from cross-cultural tragedies to crime dramas to science-fiction films in numerous languages, and has helped teach the general public what the latter type of films actually are, I see nothing but good things for the future of his career. 


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Arrival is the true, down-to-earth (pun intended) science-fiction movie that Trekkies and hard sci-fi fans have been waiting for. Much of the film plays like an extended Star Trek episode, and for the most part, that is a good thing. I would be surprised if Amy Adams didn’t receive another Academy Award nomination for her lead performance here, and it’s nice to see Jeremy Renner return to sidestream genre films. Wrap all that up in a solid, well paced screenplay with minimalist yet reliable special FX, and you’re all set.

However… Arrival’s handful of voiceovers are pointless, and the artistic design of the aliens themselves leaves much to be desired.


? I like how China and Russia are portrayed as the irrational countries. I like it a lot.

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