“Arrival” Review: The Best Kind of Science Fiction

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I think the best way that Arrival can be sold to the average person, without getting too complex or raising too many follow-up questions, is to say that Arrival is like a big-budget feature-length version of a really good Twilight Zone episode. It’s a heady and slow-burning science fiction story that uses its sci-fi elements to reflect on a more grounded and human story, one that I think that the late Rod Serling would have been proud to provide an intro and outro for.

Arrival is the latest masterwork of suspense and tension from director Deni Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, and adapted from the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It follows linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they are recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher the reasoning behind the appearance of twelve mysterious alien spacecraft that have landed across Earth. They seek to decipher the alien’s language while the rest of world scrambles to deal with the presence of these extraterrestrials. To go anymore into the story would be to ruin the experience of seeing Arrival for yourself. But suffice it to say, Arrival’s story is gripping from start to finish, and will leave you with something to think about afterward.

From here on out, spoilers.

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The story of Arrival is the main draw, albeit far from the only one, and its story is what could place among the pantheon of great science fiction films. The “alien invasion” storyline is one that is very familiar to audiences, but typically only in the “laser beams and explosions” fashion. Arrival posits a more intellectual approach that is no less terrifying, mysterious and possibly dangerous. Villeneuve manages to make the process of learning a completely alien language engaging and palatable, using some real world ideas and concepts about how language works and how it fits into the larger picture of understanding and communication. Yet even the dry science of language is made tense as Banks tries to make others understand the dangers of miscommunication or misinterpretation. It’s ironic that Banks finds it easier to learn an alien language than it is to get the military and government to give her time to learn the language.

This is where Arrival goes from “great” to “potential classic”; language and communication are central to the story, and not just when it comes to the aliens. As the world’s militaries and governments try to understand or deal with the alien, it becomes increasingly clear that these disparate organizations aren’t really working together. It’s this literal breakdown in communication that causes the ticking clock elements later in the film, and it’s this same barrier that makes the small successes of learning the alien language all the more satisfying. But going even deeper, the movie itself challenges the way the film itself communicates certain ideas and concepts to the audiences. A revelation late in the film re-contextualizes certain key aspects of the film, which most audiences would not have even thought about due to the very nature of a film’s structure and medium.

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These tricky story elements would not have nearly the same effect if it were not for the wonderful sound and cinematography that Villeneuve brings to the film. Arrival may be slowly paced, but that’s only so that every moment can sink in and be digested by the audience. Before we even meeting the spacecraft in “person,” we only see or hear of it on tiny screens or in the background while the world falls into chaos in the foreground. These opening moments build anticipation for when we do finally meet the craft, which is shown in a majestic long shot over the gently rolling hills and fog of Montana, juxtaposed against the tiny military presence that was set up hastily to observe it.

Keeping with the theme of communication, even sound and audio are played with to keep the audience figuratively “leaning in” to learn more. An early scene inside of a helicopter seems to serve as a clever illustration of the need for understanding when Banks can’t hear Donnelly over the helicopter’s rotors. But when she dons the headset, all the audio becomes muffled and tinny as if the audience itself was wearing the headset. Then when Banks finally makes “full contact” with the aliens, the audio and dialog becomes distorted and odd, as if listening underwater, illustrating the “just off” nature of learning an alien language.

Not enough good can be said about Arrival. While some might find the final turn in the movie to be a little odd or off-putting, I found it completely within theme and a great way to fully utilize the film medium to reinforce the story of the film itself. See it now in theatres, before it becomes recognised as a modern sci-fi classic.

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