Arrival (2016) – Film Review

arrival film review human sign

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Certificate: 12A

by Roger Crow

When a dozen shell-like spacecraft arrive over key locations around the world, linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads a team of investigators. That’s the plot of Arrival in a nutshell, though there’s far more to the movie than just another by-the-numbers sci-fi tale.

Arrival is many things: a love story; an alien invasion flick; a study of grief and longing, and a drama about communication all rolled into one. What it actually reveals in its final minutes packs one of the biggest emotional punches of the past 12-months. Though punch is too strong a word. It’s more of a tap, hitting part of my soul that resonates.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are always great. Here, they offer a solid emotional anchor to a project that could float away like the dozen ships at the heart of the movie. The scenes of human-alien interaction cleverly take place in an arena that looks like a movie theatre with no seats. I relate to the heroes witnessing what looks like a giant interactive film. There are echoes of Torchwood’s ETs, from the stunning mini series ‘Children of Earth’, only more benign – or are they?

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“Really an art house movie”

After his powerhouse dramas Prisoners and Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve has struck gold again. He delivers a compelling tale with an aptly alien score. Some movies signpost their messages a while in advance, but this takes its time, revealing the heart-rending core of its tale.

I leave the theatre with a deep sense of melancholy and empathy. Yes, it’s a film that has a start, middle and end, but not how you might think. Though marketed as an Independence Day-style thriller, it’s really an art house movie. Arrival is more reminiscent of Under the Skin and The Day the Earth Stood Still than a big budget blockbuster.

Like all the best films, such as Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this lingers long after the credits have rolled. Obviously it’s not perfect. A ticking clock plot twist feels contrived, and those responsible seem brushed under the carpet too easily, but it’s not a deal breaker. When the key to the third act’s denouement arrives, it feels right given the context.

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“A repeat viewing is almost essential”

There are inevitable comparisons with Contact, Jodie Foster’s 1997 sci-fi epic, which involves a female protagonist, aliens, subterfuge and big ideas, but that was let down by a cop-out finale which looked like it belonged in a Bounty advert. (I watched it again recently after a 20-year gap and was rather bored). This avoids such pitfalls.

A repeat viewing is almost essential, and I’m not surprised it’s now up for eight Oscars and eight Baftas, including Best Film in both camps.

My passion for Blade Runner 2049 has been building for years, and given Villeneuve’s track record so far, I doubt he’s going to drop the ball with that sequel.

Arrival will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD soon, but I recommend tracking it down if there’s still a screening near you. Watching an uninterrupted version on the big screen will pay dividends.


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