Arrival (2016) – Review

To tell you the truth, this year I’ve been visiting the cinema a lot less than I used to. At first the change of habit put me through some serious withdrawal before I realized that, actually, I quite enjoy waiting a few months to see the film everyone’s talking about because it makes it easier to form my own, completely uninfluenced opinion. Therefore I knew going into Arrival, amidst the flurry of positive reviews, that my expectations were set much higher than I would ideally like – that I was more likely to find good things about it than bad because everyone was telling me how great it is. And yet, there are some films which simply transcend such trivial idiosyncrasies. It really didn’t matter when or where I saw Arrival: it would still be completely excellent.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who’s recruited by the government to attempt translating the language of an alien species which has touched down in twelve separate locations across the globe. Their ultimate question? What is your purpose on Earth?’ With the help of Ian’s (Jeremy Renner) arithmetical mind, they gradually form a basis for communication with the creatures – whose language far surpasses our own in complexity and meaning – only for humans to be humans and assume the only reason they could be here is to fight.

Off the back of a string of excellent pictures (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario), it’s perhaps Villeneuve’s most hopeful film yet (and more than likely to remain that way even after the hugely-anticipated Blade Runner sequel). He’s primarily used these previous films to reveal things about ourselves; the characters are a dark reflection of us both individually as well as a wider parallel on the state of our society, and the one constant thread is that we’re always left on a downbeat. They’re stories of reality where the Hollywood ending is a thing of myth. If there is any kind of redemption to be found it’s arguably in Prisoners, but even that’s pushing it.

Arrival, movie, film, review, 2016, Villeneuve

Arrival, therefore, is something of an unexpected beast. While it methodically plods along in the same unnerving manner that Villeneuve has accustomed us to (the constant overcast mise-en-scene and murky cinematography instill a subtle dread), and the whole time we’re kind of expecting the worst (not least in the first contact sequence – the guttural soundtrack is utterly nerve-shredding), the feeling we’re left with at the end is not one of emptiness or dispirited reflection; it’s one of hope. It’s one of fascination and ideas – and heartbreak, too, but that just makes it even more emotively complex. It hits us hard on both a cerebral and emotional level.

Great science fiction manages that. It’s a seesaw between elaborate, far-reaching ideas and the complicated simplicity of the human heart – just look at Interstellar as another recent example of the genre done to precision. Arrival is a very different film, but it strikes a similar chord. It’s the kind of film that turns a simple trip to the cinema into something far more meaningful.

I really loved everything about it.

And then there’s Amy Adams. She’s quietly been one of the best actresses working for a few years now, and I think it’s finally fair to say she’s a revelation. After a magnificent turn in Nocturnal Animals just last week, she’s gone one even better here (to be honest, she probably needed a couple of wins after the clutter of Batman vs Superman). Her performance completely carries the film with its intricacy, empathy and sophistication – mark my words, she’ll be nominated for an Oscar.


Haunting, heartbreaking and hopeful. A film about the power of language and love, reminding us to communicate and work together rather than fight. If there was any lingering doubt that Denis Villeneuve is one of the finest directors working at the moment, Arrival surely shatters it. This is science fiction at its intelligent and poetic best.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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