Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Produced by: Shawn Levy
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer
Based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams
Cinematography by: Bradford Young
Editing by: Joe Walker
Studio(s): Lava Bear Films
21 Laps Entertainment
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Release date(s): September 1, 2016 (Venice Film Festival)
November 10, 2016 (United Kingdom)
November 11, 2016 (United States)
Running time: 116 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $47 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $160, 070, 580
Today's film up for review is Arrival, the critically-acclaimed science-fiction film by Denis Villeneuve which has received a fair amount of attention during the beginning of this particular awards season. Also a commercial success, it could be argued that this is the most high-profile science-fiction feature to come out since Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 masterpiece Gravity. Adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang's short Story Of Your Life, Arrival stars Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks, who is lecturing her university students when twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft arrive at different locations across the planet. U.S. Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits her to join his team, with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to make contact with the aliens, decipher their language, and find out why they have come to Earth. Got it? Good!
To start off with the good, Amy Adams is terrific in the lead performance as Louise Banks. One of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, Adams has a quality that comes naturally to her, in that she is able, without getting too much into melodramatics, to conjure our sympathies. Her Louise Banks is quite clearly, a strong, confident, intelligent woman, but through Adams' work here we are constantly aware of the underlying trauma and grief that is central to the character. Adams conveys that through subtlety; small gestures with her body language, voice and facial expressions tell us everything that we need to know. Furthermore, as the film's protagonist, through which we see all that is occuring onscreen, does a splendid job of giving the film a sort of base, keeping things level-headed and grounded. The five-time Oscar-nominated actor will probably pick up her sixth nod for this complex, powerful performance, but I fear that, God forbid, she's going to end up like the new Leonardo DiCaprio and not win because it's a genre film. The Oscars have a historical bias against science-fiction, fantasy and horror, but I have for a long time held the opinion that the best parts, especially for female actors in contemporary cinema, are to be found in these films. Arrival certainly proves my point. Another thing I would like to praise the film for is it's technical attributes. When I was watching this in the cinema, I was constantly away of the scope and the spectacle of the piece, and there were moments when I was genuinely taken aback by it. I was under the assumption that it must be a film budgeted at over $100 million, and was surprised to see that it was made for $47 million, which is a fairly modest budget for a Hollywood science-fiction film. The visual effects are of a consistently high quality, and done in such an indiscreet way, without doing anything outrageous, that they don't detract from the drama in any way. Obviously, it being quite clearly a science-fiction film there are some things that are unfamiliar and clearly effects-driven, but for the most part everything is done so that despite having this alien quality, it still seems real and familiar. The same can be said too for the sound, which is at numerous points in the film utilised to great effect, especially in relation to the alien creatures themselves. Sound and vision are key ingredients as to how we too, alongside the characters, begin to surmise what is they are on Earth for, and whenever you start to implement these technical aspects into the film, almost so that they become key to the execution of the plot themselves that's the mark of a smart film. Praise must also garnered onto the cinematography of Bradford Young, who does a great job of, as I mentioned, capturing the epic scope of the film. I talked about space in my last review for High-Rise, but here it used in multiple way. We can feel the genuine size of the spacecraft, but not only that, in both the dialogues between the humans and those between them and the aliens, we are aware of the physical differences between the different species, and yet there is a sense of closeness, an intimacy to the proceedings, as they attempt to communicate with each other. It's a very delicate balancing act done well here. The editing too by Joe Walker should be highlighted, in that despite the obvious 'alien' nature of these spacecraft and creatures, everything fits seamlessly into the real world. None of this feels like a bunch of computer-graphics blobs of pixels being pasted in. Also, without saying much about the plot, which I want to avoid because it does involve spoilers if I go too much into detail, but while the film at times jumps between flashbacks and the central story, that even if it doesn't follow 'chronological' order, Walker effectively communicates to the audience the essential spirit of the story so that it follows through the path of a natural progression. I think part of what makes the film feel so big and perhaps bigger-budgeted, notwithstanding the obvious technical qualities, is the fact that it is a movie of big ideas that doesn't belittle it's audience but instead engages them with a thesis; it's not afraid to challenge them with big questions that they will take with them out of the cinema and think about long after the film's conclusion. Equally contemplative is the score by Johann Johannsson. I first became aware of his work through Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners, and once again he composes these beautiful, meditative piano pieces which not only accompany what is occurring onscreen, but encourage the audience to mull over and think about what they are seeing. He has the rare gift of being able to balance classical film composition with that of his minimalist influences, and that comes across here. Speaking of music, this film features masterful use of Max Richter's On The Nature Of Daylight to bookend both it's opening and beginning. Admittedly, I'm biased, given that I've been a fan Richter ever since I heard his work on Ari Folman's extraordinary Waltz With Bashir back in 2008, but this piece from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks has been used before in several films (I think notably of the mix with Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth in Martin Scorsese's horrendously overlooked and quite brilliant Shutter Island) and I have to say that this is the best I've heard it used. It's implementation into the film is excellent, and everything just fits perfectly. I loved this track beforehand, but now near enough any time I listen to it, Arrival comes to mind. Finally, although of course he has been working for a good while now, and has made a number of films in the States, this is the film that will firmly establish Denis Villeneuve's reputation for the next several years. It is a film directed with such resolve, assurance and confidence. Applying the same aesthetics for storytelling as he has in his other films, Arrival is at it's heart a dramatic piece that happens to involve science-fiction elements. Villeneuve metaphorically flips the image around, revealing a reflection of ourselves in the mirror, and it is upon this image that we must ponder. It's such a classically told, elegantly made and distinctive piece of work, and Villeneuve should be congratulated for making it work on all these different levels.
Now, much as I loved Arrival, and believe you me, I do, I have to acknowledge that there are enough negative criticisms I can level towards the film that, with my objective head on here, I have to conclude that it is just shy of being a masterpiece. I think there are two key problems to the film, on which I will elaborate: firstly, that I do not feel the supporting characters are not as well developed as they should be, and secondly how that ends up affecting the performances of those actors portraying them. Some people have been highlighting the dialogue as an issue with the film (there is a particular moment during the climax that I could see people grumble on about), but I don't see that as an issue. Unfortunately, while Louise Banks is clearly the central character, I still feel that those around her, namely Colonel Weber, Ian Donnelly, and Agent David Halpern (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) were developed well-enough. They may be supporting players, but I still want to have a sense that they are more than just characters page; I want to them to lift off the page, especially when you have one as strong as the central character. This also affects the performances of the actors portraying them. Whitaker, Renner and Stuhlbarg are all very capable actors who I have seen do excellent work, both in a lead and supporting capacity, so it's a shame that however much they try, they are still playing characters that are somewhat two-dimensional and end up feeling more like devices to work around the crux of Louise Banks, as opposed to people with their own story to tell.
That being said, while these issues I think deny it from the status of 'masterpiece,' Arrival remains in itself a remarkable film largely deserving of the accolades it is receiving. It has an excellent lead performance from Amy Adams, a consistently high production value, technical prowess, carries a lot of legitimate weight behind it's ideas, a haunting and powerful score from Johann Johannsson and assured, confident direction from Denis Villeneuve. Science-fiction is always something that is welcome in my books, but it's all the better when it is done with such grace and elegance.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.9/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Rejuvenated (I've more energy than I've had in years right now)