Review: Arrival (2016)

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“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”. You may have come across this question before but never has it been so relevant as in Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi film, an exciting picture that explores a wide variety of topics including time-travel, extra-terrestrial life and linguistics. Arrival aims to inspire and challenge the audience and it does so very well.

Eric Heisserer had been trying for years to adapt the Nubella winner novella “Story of your life” by Ted Chiang. As of 2012, he had almost given up and the screenplay found its way in “The Black List”, a collection of the best unproduced screenplays. Fortunately for all of us, Denis Villeneuve got an interest in it and the result was one of the best director/writer pairings of the year. The main character is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who is hired by the US military who are trying to translate the language of some unidentifiable beings that have apparently come from another place in the universe in twelve mysterious spacecrafts.Political tension grows all over the planet as the aliens’ purpose is unknown and their only way of communicating is an incomprehensible writing. Teamed up with physics professor Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise must find a way to decipher the bewildering writing before the situation gets out of hand as nations all over the world start to face the spacecrafts with hostility.

Denis Villeneuve proves again that he is one of the most exciting directors working now in Hollywood. The directing is top-notch and combined with Bradford Young’s cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score we have an excellently paced, visually stunning and deeply affecting feature. To top it all, Amy Adams gives an extraordinary performance. The absence of her name in the Best Leading actress Oscar nominations is probably the single most shocking snub of the year. She is absolutely stunning in this one. I could almost feel nausea myself when I first saw her in that suit. 

The reason why Arrival works is that it tackles so many matters without offering a specific take on them. Everything is left to the audience. How should humanity tackle a possible alien approach? How important is language in our way of perceiving our nature? What would we change if we knew the future? I don’t even dare to put myself in Louise’s place. I can’t tell if she made the right or wrong decision and the film won’t tell you either. What else is remarkable about Arrival is how thoroughly it was researched scientifically. Several scientists, especially linguists, were approached to give their consult and this is what gives the film a realistic tone and solid background. If there is one thing that I didn’t like was the confrontation with the “Bootstrap Paradox”. This is when a future and a present action are both caused by one another without a logical explanation of how this cycle started. It’s actually common among sci-fi films that deal with time travel, but it always feels irritating to me. Interstellar, Minority Report and Donnie Darko are just some of the titles. The paradox even has its own film titled Predestination. Fortunately, it’s not so important in the plot of this film.

In summary, Arrival is an outstanding picture and I was delighted to know that it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. I repeat it’s a shame Amy Adams was snubbed. It’s good to know that films like these are produced in Hollywood and can’t wait to see Villeneuve’s next feature, the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. He has showcased better than ever what he is capable of with Arrival and I really hope he continues to do what he knows best.

8/10