Review: Arrival (2016)

Good kind of sci-fi & good kind of thriller make good kind of film

by Benjamín Harguindey

Denis Villeneuve has been making movies since 1988, as well as doing frequent rounds at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, but it wasn’t until his 2010 mystery-drama Incendies that the French Canadian director caught worldwide interest and was officially incepted into the mainstream industry.

Since then Villeneuve has delivered a slew of intense and original thrillers: crime thriller Prisoners (2013), psychological thriller Enemy (2013), action thriller Sicario (2015) and now sci-fi thriller Arrival (2016). What all of these movies have in common is their ability to conjure unique worlds with intriguing enigmas at their heart. Be that the bleak, snowy Pennsylvania from Prisoners or the oppressive, eerily desolate Toronto from Enemy (the one love-it-or-hate-it entry in Villeneuve’s oeuvre) characters are haunted by deep, personal conflicts that seem to materialize in the form of alarming outward drama and drive the plot.

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Arrival shows that he has yet to do wrong. Written by Eric Heisserer and based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, the movie stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist enlisted by US military to broker a means of communication with alien life forms. The aliens have appeared overnight, their spacecrafts gigantic, oblong monoliths hovering ominously above skylines. Because we never leave Louise’s point of view, we only get a few glimpses of the building panic and hysteria. She’s soon flown by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a top secret army base in rural Montana, where she teams up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and leads an expedition aboard the nearby alien ship.

The story is the good kind of science fiction, the one that is genuinely interested in speculating and developing hypothesis rather than using them as kick-starters before gearing into autopilot. Aliens show up – how do we breach the language barrier, Babel Fish notwithstanding? How do we guess their intentions? To what degree can we rely on subjective judgment and interpretation? How does humanity make itself understood to another species when communication is the one recurring vulnerability in the fabric of society?

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In this sense the movie closely resembles Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), also starring another strong-willed female scientist (Jodie Foster of all people) clashing with the powers that be for the sake of peaceful interspecies contact. Not only does Louise have to deal with Weber’s increasingly trigger-happy squadron and the paranoid CIA stooge played by Michael Stuhlbarg; she’s racing every other nation in the world that’s on the brink of preemptively nuking the spaceships. Louise is also beset by visions of her dead child. These indubitably connect to the alien presence, and the way the movie ties both ends is particularly satisfying.

Fascinating and enthralling as Arrival is, it is not without its flaws. The slow, molasses-like build pays off fine as the movie never answers a question without throwing a couple more interesting ones in our way, but some characters are not given much to do – Renner’s physicist seems particularly weak, dabbling a bit in comic relief and then some more as romantic interest, but never really developing much character or purpose. The ending may be a point of contention above all, if not for what it shows then for how it shows it, somewhere between ridiculous and brilliant.

Regardless Arrival is the good kind of sci-fi, because it keeps making guesses, and the good kind of thriller, because it keeps you guessing. That makes it the good kind of movie.


BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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