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These days trailers can be rather damn terrible. Not only do they give away the entire plot of a movie but often also literally show you the ending, albeit even just a half second glimpse at it. So when I watched Arrival’s first trailer I must confess I was rather concerned. I was worried that Sicario director Denis Villeneuve was inexplicably bucking against his record thus far and his latest movie would turn into some sort of garbage Independence Day 2, with flying UFOs shooting green space shit at American pilots. Call me Burnt, I have been with many recent movies I was excited for (Suicide Squad get back in the corner). But in the case of Arrival I was oh so very wrong!

You see I have a soft spot for the source material, that being a short novella called ‘Story of your Life’. The novella won the 2000 Nebula Award and looks at the rather complex notion of Whorfianism. Now you may be wondering what the hell Klingons have to do with this and trust me, sweet bugger all. Instead it has to do with linguistics and how the structure of languages can affect a speaker’s cognition, or world view. And Arrival – through some fantastic editing techniques, like dream sequences and flashbacks, which often fail in other movies – manages to bridge the gap between alien, abstract ideas like this ‘Whorfianism’ and visually entertaining material an audience can accept. And to that I say Qapla!

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The film stars Amy Adams (who seems to be in just about every movie these days), alongside Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, so we have a pretty solid bunch of lead actors who all manage to contribute to creating a very believable situation. And that is the great thing about this movie, it really is believable. How? Well it focuses more on the emotional effects of first contact, the frustrations of all involved, from the civilians rioting in the streets, to the governments being pressured into doing something, ANYTHING, to be seen doing, well, something. 

Arrival focuses on linguist specialist Louise Banks, played superbly by Adams, as she teams up with mathematician Renner’s Ian Donnelly, in a bid to work out what the aliens’ intentions. Heading this investigation is Whitaker’s Colonel Weber, who has the resources to let our scientists figure out a way to communicate with our Arrivals and ask them ‘What do you want?’

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I suppose you could say that Louise is our ‘Rosetta Stone’ in the story, acting as a guide through the events and also as a dictionary of sorts. It is through her tragic backstory, one of losing her daughter, that we are able to decipher what is going on. This is a big part of the movie that carries some intrinsic plot lines and as such I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, just that it was refreshing to not know where you are heading until you finally get there. I will say that Adams is convincing in her role, as both frustrated scientist and mourning mother, and she fills it with absolute confidence. It also helps offset the lack of character development in other characters, Donnelly and Weber. Don’t get me wrong, Renner and Weber are great in their roles, but Adams is clearly the central figure here, this is a deeply personal story for her character.

Arrival is quite a meditative film. It ponders Aristotle-like questions of reality, existence and being, which is why I enjoyed it so much. Consequently that means there is very little pew pew, bang bang sci-fi, ‘action’. So no, no dog fights, no glowing sabers and no rousing, vomit inducing speeches. And that really is a good thing. It probably means it isn’t going to make money hand over fist in its run, but what it will do is ensure its place among the best of science fiction for a long time to come.

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That isn’t to say that the visual elements are not fantastic and innovative. What else would you expect from a director that managed to make a movie about drug dealers a visual art piece? Villeneuve also uses cinematographer Bradford Young, who was responsible for Selma, to amazing effect in fostering awe and in creating a jarring juxtaposition between our natural earth and the alien’s harsh environment. Even the alien squid-like-hybrids. One particular favourite visual element of mine was how the aliens write, mixing an almost Spider-Man like delivery with Rorschach-like ink effects against a see through wall. Very awesome.

Another point worth noting is the sound score. Jóhann Jóhannsson does such a good job with emotional scenes that you actually want to cry, and you have bugger all idea why, other than the obvious allergies that abound in cinemas (hand me the tissues!). The first half has a distinct awe-like feel to it while the second cranks up the sinister vibe, all to great effect.

One downside for me though was some of the pacing. As in, are we being swooped up in the film or just watching it? For the most part you feel you are in the movie, being swept along emotionally so that you really do get invested. However, I found that some of the elements in the second act were a bit too disparate to the rest. We watch as a collage of CSI moments of our team figuring out the language fly at us. Or stare on as a group of characters suddenly decide to do some rather bloody stupid thing with minimal setup, and we are suddenly watching a normal movie, one lacking depth of feeling which is quite against the whole point of Arrival. I think we can forgive writer Eric Heisserer though. I see why he did what he did; moving events along at a pace to get things done, and I don’t think it damages the overall experience to a large extent but it is worth pointing out.

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But even with those minor flaws, I cannot recommend Arrival enough. If you are cerebral and love science fiction go see it. No, that isn’t a slight on people who like more action-focused science-fiction, as there is nothing wrong with that. But Arrival makes a much-needed change to the letdowns we have had to endure over the years (yes Interstellar, I am looking at you – ‘Love gravity waves’, WTF?). I don’t think it will go down in history as another 2001: Space Odyssey but I do think it has its own place among the higher-end science-fiction tales out there. With a brilliant lead performance from Adams, effective special effects and a sound score that will make you bawl for your mommy, the movie will generate lots of conversation once the credits have rolled. And in my case, make me want to walk straight back in and watch it all over again. I have to say that Arrival is easily the best science fiction movie that has landed on our earth in the last few years, do yourself a favour and go see it on the big screen.

Last Updated: November 11, 2016

Arrival
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Nick Reay

I have been an avid fan of movies ever since I discovered Santa Clause wasn't real, a day marked in my memory by my first viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, which wasn't so wonderful that day. Since then I've watched thousands of movies and even fooled my parents into putting me through uni to get a degree in the subject. I first started writing as a journalist for The South African Newspaper before moving onto communications for an NGO trying to save the planet. Unfortunately my recommendations to the CEO that we should all don rings imbued with the powers of earth, fire, wind, water and HEART went unheard. Now I pretend the end isn't nigh by hiding in movies.

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