Arrival is the newest film from visionary director (and fellow Canadian) Denis Villeneuve. I’ll be honest, this is probably going to be my favourite movie of 2016. Villeneuve has been on everyone’s radar as an up-and-coming director for a few years now, coming out with incredible movies like Prisoners (premiered at TIFF) and Sicario (premiered at Cannes). Well, this movie fully establishes that he’s arrived (pun intended). This movie puts him in conversation as one of the best directors of the 2010’s, in elite company with Inarritu and Cuaron.
To start, this film is visually stunning. Bradford Young, the cinematographer, worked on films like Selma and Ain’t Them Body Saints, but never something on this level, and he nailed it. Even just the opening shot, with the camera doing a tilt down from the ceiling sets the pace of the film for the next hour. Throughout, the shots are amazing, and even in the sci-fi genre, where visual extravagance has become the norm, it rises above.
The story as a whole is refreshing. I’ll talk about spoilers a little bit further down (with fair warning) but for now I’ll talk about as much as is revealed in the trailers. The portrayal of the aliens is new, their spaceships are new, and the whole movie from the perspective of a language professor is new. It’s all so refreshing, a feeling that last throughout the entire movie. If you’re looking for an action, shoot-em-up type of sci-fi movie, this is not it. This is a smart movie, made by smart moviemakers, designed for smart audiences.
SPOILERS (Please watch this movie before reading this)
Okay, you’ve been warned. From here on contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now, go watch the movie, and then you can read the rest of the article.
Please. Go watch this movie.
The movie starts with Louise remembering the entirety of her daughters life in a matter of the first 2 minutes. I remember my wife, Adrienne, leaning over to me and saying “well, that’s one way to start a movie.” We, as an audience, are lead to believe that this movie takes place in chronological order, as most movies in hollywood. However, it isn’t revealed until well into the final third of the movie that everything that happens in the first 2 minutes of the movie haven’t happened yet. They are in the future. And what’s beautiful about the script and how Denis shot it is that it is never explicitly explained to the audience. They have to figure it out.
Now, honestly, this movie isn’t really an alien movie. It is a sci-fi movie, but it isn’t really an alien movie. In my opinion, it is far more about the idea of the fourth dimension and how to engage with it. It is more about human contact than it is about aliens. I thought even that approach was incredible. The way it is subtly shown that by learning a language, it affects how you think, and that Louise is fully experiencing this. The ‘flashbacks’ that happen throughout the film aren’t flashbacks, but flashforwards to things that haven’t happened yet. I noticed while watching this that people realized this at different times. For some people, it only took 4 or 5 flashbacks, for others it took until the last flashback for them to realize, and I heard little gasps at random moments as they figured it out. Like I said, this movie doesn’t hand you the concept on a platter. It gives you the tools, and you have to figure it out.
I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I love this film. But, with every great movie, there are some things that needed a little more attention. Also, it goes without saying that all of this is my opinion and can totally be argued with.
One thing that really stood out to me was when Ian (Renner’s character) just had a voice over for a minute or two explaining the approach to unpacking their language. It took me out of the movie, because up to that point, and honestly, everything after that was told from Louise’s perspective. It is her film, and it is incredibly personal and intimate. It was jarring, and took away from the film to have Renner do a voice over about science. It didn’t fit, in my opinion.
In the same way, I felt that they glossed right over how they were able to communicate with the aliens. One scene, they’re just learning what the word is for their kind, and the next scene they have this algorithm that explains exactly what they’re seeing with no explanation of how it was done. The whole reason Ian and Louise were there was to do the science side of the communication, but it was shown in a short montage instead of being the main focus of the film. I wouldn’t say I want the movie to change, because the science side isn’t the focus of the film, but I did feel cheated because that was the movie I thought I was getting.
The other thing I had a problem with was the ending, and specifically one part of the ending. Louise writes a book, explaining the language so that others can learn it…but we know from the film that by learning the language you can see into the future, so now the entire population has access to seeing into the future…I hope you see where I’m going with this. It was never touched on, how devastating it would be! There is so many possibilities there, and I feel like it would have been better if she had never written a book and taught a class on the language for that very reason.
The approach to the movie as a whole was beautiful. Denis and his crew killed it with this movie, dealing with the heavy topics of family, war, human relations and unity, and mortality.
I’m struggling with how to end movie reviews (this is my first one). I don’t want to do a grading or something dumb like that, but I do want to say something about it. So I think I’m going to go with an either “Watch this movie” or “Don’t watch this movie.”
And, if you read all the way through this article: 1) Thank you. 2) It should be very obvious what I will say.
Watch this movie.