Arrival


★★★★★

Directed by Denis Villeneuve Written by Eric Heisserer Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner & Forest Whitaker Film Review by Dean Pettipher


Ever since Mr Denis Villeneuve broke out into the mainstream Western cinema psyche with the superbly scarring chef-d'oeuvre entitled Prisoners (2013), not long after attracting prestigious attention for his BAFTA-nominated drama, Incendies (2010), the rapidly ascending star has consistently crafted works that above all make one think to their soul’s boundless satisfaction. Such a feat results from stories told on each occasion with Hitchcock-like suspense, agonizing tension and a fearless plunge into the debates that few dare to even whisper of in more open spaces of intelligent discourse because of a fear for brutal reprimands from others or, indeed, for the sheer amount of overwhelmingly uncomfortable possibilities that such discussions encourage, which, in the interest of experiencing as much joy in one’s brief existence as possible, are best left alone and unspoiled, unless a drastic shift in personal circumstances demands otherwise. Having shaken audience disposition to its core through uncomfortable and bone-chilling explorations of survival in the wake suddenly-stolen children within ostensibly peaceful suburbs with Prisoners, survival in the wake of a ruthless war in the shadows against drugs raging on the border between Mexico and the United States of America with Sicario (2015), as well as survival in the wake of discovering an exact look-alike in a movie with Enemy (2013), Villeneuve strikes again.

On his grandest scale to date, he lands firmly upon Oscar-worthy territory yet again with Arrival (2016), a picture that dives into the exploration of humanity’s survival in the wake of an alien advent. Based on the short story authored by Ted Chiang, entitled “Story of Your Life,” screenwriter Eric Heisserer has penned an excellent science-fiction thriller, which, in an alarmingly beautiful illustration of serendipity, appears for many to be an allegory for the presently turbulent state of global affairs. Cast and crew assemble to transform the screenplay into an eloquent and gentle, albeit occasionally confusing, titan of its genre that rivals classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Alien (1979). Similarly to those movies, Arrival highlights a connection between humanity and aliens beyond Earth in a manner akin to the link between humanity and the natural world within Earth. Just like the natural world, human beings appear here to be encouraged towards taking aliens more seriously, ensuring that they never allow arrogance to prevail and thus underestimate what they do not understand.


Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and the twentieth centuries especially, Canadian literature was arguably the finest, most passionate philosophical investigation of nature. The Confederation Poets in particular revelled in seeking to accurately comprehend the Canadian wilderness. Some claimed that nature was an overall angelic force worthy of frequent celebration. Others urged readers to heed the stark warnings that nature had a malevolent mind of its own, which was intent on obliterating any explorers who were brave or foolish enough to attempt any sort of hostile takeover, or even a friendly visit. However, consensus amongst many Canadian authors ultimately emerged around the notion that nature was neither good nor evil but simply indifferent towards humanity. Consequently, nature could be enjoyed and appreciated with at least a small degree of caution. However, nature could also be lethal if messed with even in the slightest and people would misinterpret her ineffable qualities at their peril. A strikingly identical stance is taken with Arrival in relation to humanity and extra-terrestrials, which is a phenomenon both fitting and intriguing, not least because Villeneuve is a French-Canadian filmmaker. Moreover, Arrival was the film chosen for the Royal Bank of Canada Gala (RBC) that formed an integral part of the 2016 London Film Festival (LFF). For many more reasons than the undeniable fact that Jeremy Renner looked dashingly handsome in a sable-black tuxedo, while Amy Adams appeared more magnificently beautiful than ever as she glistened in the most perfect snow-white dress imaginable, those representing the LFF, RBC and all of the powerful institutions in-between made, without question, an excellent choice.

The most uniquely impressive quality of Arrival is the orchestral soundtrack composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. One specific section of the score, played during a highly-anticipated moment of grand revelation, never fails to inspire an at once frightening, and then strangely pleasurable, internally-rooted chills, even after the melody was proudly revealed for all to hear during the trailer in order to emphasize the sheer scale of the imposing stationing of alien vessels around the globe. Like the notoriously famed, ceaselessly nerve-numbing theme that the sensational musician, John Williams, composed for Jaws, the theme composed for the apparent alien invasion is a mellifluous, sonorous melody. The movie theatre descends into a bombinating vacuum the instant that Villeneuve and Jóhannsson unleash the track; the tune would very likely for some jar the ear towards an aching sensation beyond the context of Arrival. Yet, for the science fiction work for which it was conceived, the harmonies could, without a hesitation, not be deemed more perfect. Such faultlessness rises to the extent that one would not be at all surprised if Jóhannsson’s music developed an entrenched, defiant and ultimately permanent association with alien encounters of the more eerily uncertain sort in the same way that Williams’s aforementioned orchestral toil of genius forever reminds one of the dangers linked to the underestimation of sharks.


The trio of acting champions headlining the best of humanity in Arrival perform with expert vocal eloquence and striking physical elegance in more or less equal measure. Amy Adams portrays the gorgeous, intelligent and people-focused protagonist with dove-like grace. Consequently, audiences witness admirable amounts of strength repeatedly come into contact with alluring degrees of fragility. For these intense forces, not unfamiliar to audiences in their awed entireties, rise and fall while raging against one another at various turning points of the story, within and without a fully-fledged and therefore totally-believable human heroine. The former quality propels Adams into the light of the ever-growing number of admirably strong-willed female protagonists who never fail to surrender their position in crucial matters of the heart or the mind without a fight in their male-dominated environments. The latter trait of Adams’s character aids highlighting of familiar flaws that serve to only make her that much more attractive. Moreover, the internal delicacy revealed leads towards an engaging exploration of how one copes with a tremendous loss in such a way, which, through pitiless trials and relentless revisits, can ultimately reward those who survive with an infectious strength of character.

Jeremy Renner glows humbly within the soothing shadow of Adams’s leading role, delivering a familiar but finely-tuned and consequently no less compelling performance than the heroine whom he supports. Renner’s suave composure, in combination with his gentle sprinkling of witty remarks, allows his character to serve as the principle source of sporadic, feather-light comic relief for Arrival. Moreover, Renner creates an aura that burns defiantly bright with calmness and relaxation within the vast space filled by an almost totally-immobilizing suspense, which not infrequently overflows in the wake of the unnerving sensations encouraged by the sensitive dialogue between Renner’s team of human experts of various fields and their alien visitors. Finally, Forest Whitaker also delights audiences with a compelling performance. He expertly plays an integral supporting role, as a realist military officer whose noble intentions are clear, in spite of his outer professional coldness towards others and the often severely stern behaviours that appear clearly fuelled by such a war-hardened mentality. Albeit Whitaker does not venture into unknown galaxies of high artistic demand witnessed by audiences heretofore, most notably the pictures entitled The Last King of Scotland (2006), he nonetheless goes well-beyond the call of duty sounded by the material that he is given. The result is an undeniably strong and commanding character presence, which is no less compelling than Whitaker’s finest works to date, which range from the aforementioned movie about a notorious Ugandan political leader, to films that include Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), as well as appearances in television shows like ER (1994-2009). The three actors together induce audiences to aquiver at least a few times while they sit in their enchanted states of solitude. The impressive feat proves vital, particularly when the dialogue-heavy scenes occasionally indulge in tasters of both scientific and linguistic exploration that risk forcing uninterested viewers into a rapid descent towards total boredom.


Villeneuve demonstrates with his latest project that he is a consistently incredible adept of the directing craft. Together with his teams of artists working in all departments, Villeneuve has never failed to produce film that is breathtakingly atmospheric. Moreover, the darker shades applied to the otherwise fairly vibrant colour schemes of the tasteful cinematography ceaselessly imply the presence of nefarious forces in the air ready to strike at any moment. Thus, the suspense and tension, prompted repeatedly by ever-rising stakes, appear entirely believable, even for those who do not typically relate in the most genuine sense to works of science fiction. While one hopes that Villeneuve might one day explore uncharted systems beyond his forte of the thriller, one may, in the meantime, become justifiably excited for his next endeavour, which is, incidentally, a hotly anticipated and long-overdue science fiction tale: Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Indeed, the words declared by Ridley Scott in relation to the completed script for the future blockbuster could comfortably be repeated when discussing Arrival as an illustration of Villeneuve’s directing ability. That is to say, “[he’s] damn good.”

The plot of Arrival is the greatest cause for stark division between those who ardently adored the movie and those who felt, with perfectly reasonable elaborations in their arguments, that the movie was at least a little overrated. Support for the former camp may turn to the wonderfully poignant opening sequence; the beginning of the story boldly establishes an essential, unbreakable emotional connection between the protagonist and her audience in such a way that has not been pulled off so brilliantly since Disney’s rather more flamboyant and cheerful animated film entitled Up (2009). For the former camp, however, truly felt connections with the movie’s characters do not compensate for the controversial twist and ending that provide much of the film’s longevity within audience hearts throughout the upcoming Oscar season and beyond. Controversy arises primarily because of the believability of major epiphanies and the exploration of debates between linguists and scientists, which, at times, can feel slightly contrived. On the other hand, examinations of language especially are presented via the silver screen through genuinely funny and at least ostensibly plausible analogies and well-composed oral deliveries of succinct elaborations in relation to principle ideas that are crucial for advancing either the plot or certain characters. Nevertheless, thanks to the plot’s numerous layers, Villeneuve has yet again chosen and succeeded in bringing to life a story that one wishes that one could see again and again, as if those viewings were repeats of the first time, so that one could once again celebrate the shock of various surprises, as well as appreciate being sincerely treated by Villeneuve and the team like intelligent audience members who thrive on the challenge complex stories with characters experiencing equally complicated internal skirmishes.


The most damning blow to Arrival is the tragically-underwritten character played by Jeremy Renner. Certainly in comparison to the linguist portrayed by Amy Adams, the theoretical physicist that Renner raises from the page to the cinematic stage enjoys much, much less backstory revelation. Furthermore, the character also endures a much more shallow depth of character development. One also wonders whether or not he could have played an even more substantial part in the final act especially, so that his overall presence in the story did not seem expendable alongside its grand themes. One does not at all mean to mock when noting, with no sarcasm whatsoever, that Renner has had a decent amount of professional, high-profile experience with making the most of unjustly limited parts, especially within grand ensemble pieces, such as The Avengers (2012). Fortunately, yet again, Renner humbly treats the part as if every single word spoken and every minute movement made mattered more than ever to the film’s overall quality. In the end, then, while Renner’s character is not quite able to inspire a true state of limerence, Renner’s performance is more than strong enough to grant his character’s relationships with others sustainable amounts of credibility. It may seem like a lifetime has passed since Renner earned an Oscar nomination for the Best Actor award as a result of The Hurt Locker (2008). Moreover, his nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar following his significant contribution to The Town (2010) may be all but completely eradicated from memory. In fact, the rapid succession of Marvel movies may have encouraged audiences to move on far away from Renner’s more prominent role in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). However, Renner’s critical success is definitely both well-earned and well-deserved. Somehow, he must be granted with opportunities to demonstrate the correct extent of his ability as an artist, ideally in the form of roles that allow for a showcasing of greater versatility than audiences have seen heretofore. For now, Renner dazzles through demonstrating the benefits of embracing the age-old concept of making the most of what one has, even when it is, at least in some noteworthy respects, not much at all.

Villeneuve is fast becoming one of those directors for whom an international consensus is growing regarding the notion that his films deserve much more substantial levels of high-profile recognition for their artistic accomplishments than they have received to date. For instance, albeit the Oscar class of 2014 was bursting with magical productions and astonishing performances, for that particular awards season included landmark movies like 12 Years a Slave (2013), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Rush (2013) The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Gravity (2013), without meaning to understate the significance of its nomination for the Best Cinematography award, Prisoners deserved an identically-great degree of attention as far as almost every other category was concerned, most notably the leading performances and the screenplay. Ultimately, however, the defiant telling of yet another story that basks in an emotional complexity and a uniquely vivid cinematography proves that awards are worth far less to the collaborators than the making of an exceptional film, which audiences will remember long into the future for the best of reasons. One motive for recalling Arrival in forthcoming conversation may very likely be its phenomenal examination of what unites and divides humanity, which Renner incidentally talked about at length, during the London Film Festival press conference for the film at the Corinthia Hotel in Central London. To that end, Arrival is this year’s best call for audiences into a soothing state of sonder, which in turn compels them to believe in ambitious but benevolent causes in such a way that achieves at least a few fleeting moments of collective unity across the world in particular, or individual enlightenment within one’s personal bubble. Such optimistic sentiments evoke words written by one of the more prominent Canadian Confederation Poets:

“Awake, my country, the hour of dreams is done! Doubt not, nor dread the greatness of thy fate.” – Charles G. D. Roberts, “An Ode for the Canadian Confederacy”

The handful of tenuous links to Canada shine because the nation to this day has endured vicious divides rooted in conflicts regarding nature, ethnicity and national identity for instance, which, needless to state, are of course not unique to any single nation. Fortunately, there have always been at least a small number of individuals who take it upon themselves to inspire a quest in search of a positive cure for the divisions. Similarly, Arrival highlights great divides that are presently prevalent across the world, especially in the wake of recent political shocks in both the United States and Europe. Consequently, the movie has, in a way, fortuitously succeeded in encapsulating a much broader range of universal issues than its creative team conceived within their initial expectations for the film’s reception. Whether it be the position of women in film, the turbulent international relations, or the notoriously ambiguous relationship between human beings and the galaxy beyond their home planet, Arrival casts a pure, brightly shining light of hopefulness upon such debates. Many filmmakers will no doubt seek to replicate or exceed this specific success, ensuring that their audiences are borne forward ceaselessly into the future. Thus, most certainly, without meaning to overrate the picture, Arrival turned out to be one of the most underestimated films of the London Film Festival and wider universe of cinema.

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