Film Review – Arrival (Spoiler Free)
Arrival is an alien invasion film, but not in that blockbuster, explosion-ridden sense. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) has taken the topic and made it into a beautiful film. Of course, Arrival is based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, but the execution of this story as well as Chiang’s main character makes this a must-see film.
Arrival revolves around the arrival of twelve alien “pods” around the world. The only one that arrives in the U.S. parks itself in Montana. The aliens want to communicate with humans, the problem is that their language, both written and spoken, is not like anything seen before. Enter Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist professor and an expert in her field. She is brought in by the U.S. government to help decode the alien language and communicate with them. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, is also brought in to help with the science of the alien ship and lend his expertise. Leading the on-site government control of the pod is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). The basic problem at hand is trying to figure out why the aliens are here and what do they want.
If you read any review that gives you more than the above basic summary or beyond what the film’s trailers show you, your enjoyment of the film will not be as outstanding as mine. I would compare the need for silence on the specific plot and the ending of the film to seeing The Sixth Sense. Once you have seen it and know the ending, it becomes a different film. If you have seen Arrival, you don’t talk about Arrival to those who have not seen it.
Beyond the story details of Arrival, there is a need to talk about how it was filmed. Denis Villeneuve along director of photography Bradford Young and the rest of his crew have not made this film look like the typical blockbuster, big budget alien invasion film we are so used to seeing. I would not even qualify Arrival as a blockbuster. It is art. It is set in Montana (actually Quebec, Canada) using an open field surrounded by hills or mountains along with the rolling clouds and fog. This lends the pod to being more mysterious and beautiful and devoid of modern noise. Comparing the setting with say New York City, it would become a different film. Also worth mentioning is that lighting of scenes is dim. To me, the lighting made it more real, less sensationalistic. Focus is also used as a tool to draw your attention away from a conversation or an action and place it on the person or thing the audience should be focusing on in that moment. The focus drives the important moments or things you should be keeping in the back of your head as the film progresses.
Last but not least is the music. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is immediately noticed when we see the alien pod for the first time. It is atypical of what would be common alien blockbusters. It recalled to me a bit of an Indian influence, and you can hear a small portion of it in the film’s trailer. The music continually stands out throughout the whole film and is an important piece that makes the film what it is.
I cannot implore you enough to see Arrival, especially on its opening weekend. It is a wholly unique film with Denis Villeneuve taking the story and the “alien invasion” genre and making it his own. This film is not to be missed, especially on the big screen being surrounded by its beautiful, unique score.