Arrival (2016) Review

director: Denis Villeneuve

writers: Eric Heisserer

starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker 

genre: DramaSci-Fi

released: 10 November (Australia), 1 November 2016 (USA), 24 November 2016 (Germany), 8 December (Greece)

based on the short story: "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang

Sci-fi is the dreaded genre that usually alienates audiences due to its more elaborate plots and dark and complex themes. With that in mind, picking filmmaker Denis Villeneuve to direct the film seemed like a decision that wouldn't help to make the film any more accessible to that general audience. Though, after seeing the film it seems a significant effort must have been made to make it into a more inclusive science fiction film. Where things weren't left unanswered and were action wasn't considered an option in telling the story. Resulting in a film much more about humanity's purpose for living, than just only on the what if of confronting an extra terrestrial life.


It all begins with the arrival of Alien spaceships around the world with no determinable pattern or reason for contact with humankind. One qualified linguist experiencing the event is recruited by the U.S. government to investigate the arrival and find a way of communicating with them. The ultimate purpose being to find out why did they come to Earth and if they pose a threat to the human race.


Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve previous films 'Enemy' & 'Prisoners' were more artsy, independent productions that you would have to draw your own conclusions based on the work and also the source material. As his career has moved a little more forward after those films. He has become more aware I believe of audiences in general not immediately gravitating to that kind of work and the need to find a middle ground so Hollywood could see the potential in his incredible talent and skill behind the camera. Which can be blatantly seen as he has already been chosen to direct the sequel to the 1980's classic 'Blade Runner'.

'Arrival' though is no different with his other films in regards to being exceptional in so many different ways. From his direction, cinematography, performances and orchestration of events. In specific, the way we are presented for example the Alien arrival, the human reaction to it and the methodology of the scientists communication with the aliens is both original and interesting to follow. The only other film that I can think of that treated the subject matter as seriously is 'The Andromeda Strain'. Naturally, some will mention 'Interstellar' but its take on sci-fi was more flamboyant and different in style. Here their are scientific and academic theories being played around with the communication between the two species and the scientific road to be followed. With approaches based on mathematics and linguistics being used and as time passes by they require each other in order to solve the mystery of the arrival. What's also interesting about this is that their is different type of handling of the alien arrivals from different parts of the world based on their culture and background. Creating more difficulties in certain areas, while in others getting straight to the point a lot quicker.

In the midst of these efforts they are a lot of elements that are being presented in the background and concurrent to the film's main narrative. With us the audience not knowing exactly where the film is going with it and if it will play a larger role to the plot or if these elements are only meant on a character basis. Thankfully, everything shown is meant for a reason and makes complete sense with the film's conclusion. Much of the film is about how there is almost a meaning to everything in existence and that life is an endless cycle that never ends and starts all over again. This in the film is left to the two main characters to determine if life should be viewed in a more positive or negative way due to what is presented to them with the alien arrival and their own personal experiences. This might sound sort of vague and enigmatic as I am not referencing exact parts of the film. But if you have seen the film you will undoubtedly understand what I mean.

Additionally, the film' structure as well makes sense after you've seen the film in terms of coming full circle and the small elements of narration provided by Amy Adams character. However, I thought it was kind of weird at some point that Jeremy Renner's character provided narration as well. This might make more sense after the film, but it also was at a point where it seemed as if some exposition information was needed to be given and they didn't know how to do so. Many points in the film TV broadcasts fill the gaps and in a very concise manner. I'm merely deducing that maybe a test audience were a bit lost at certain points and more of conventional exposition was layered throughout the film so audiences weren't left two steps back and needing to put the pieces together. Which if that was the case, mission accomplished.

Concerning the sci-fi elements of the film. It's nice to see the film deal with the communication of alien life with humanity. Something that we gloss over in many sci-fi productions. The detail given to illustrate this is adequate in providing us with different ways of understanding of how the divide could be narrowed and what could be the writing and speech of an alien race. Also, thrown in are a few crazy ideas such as dreams and the perception of reality to mess with us but to also show how radical the concept of an extra terrestrial communicating could be. Not to mention adding the most coveted of sci-fi ideas, that if mentioned would ruin the whole film for you. But works just fine and remember comes full circle. 

Moreover, what helps sell the production as this mysterious and thought provoking sci-fi film is its score and Villeneuve direction. First, the music which should have been a front runner for a best music Oscar, but was sadly omitted from the process (link). Nonetheless, is still an eerie composition of music with horns blazing and other musical instruments that create moments that will give you goosebumps and also pumped at other points with the powerful bass at times that blasts through when danger or mystery is a foot. Then there is Villeneuve handling of the atmosphere in the film by having as few moments possible of destruction and always being in a beautiful location with misty clouds and rain for the characters to work in. This beautiful but also grim look given to the film instills a feeling of uncertainty to the events to follow. Either that be from people's reactions to the alien arrival or the scientific efforts at the other alien site locations. While also to create a distinction in his work from other Hollywood productions out there. Also, something that was pointed out by 'RedLetterMedia' and should be mentioned, is that the alien design despite being nothing exceptional isn't a point of criticism in almost anyone's mind. As they weren't the main focus of the film and because everything else was so good, we didn't bother noticing.


This is the kind of film that doesn't overtly try to spoon feed a more relaxed general audience or accommodate to suit a niche market of needle in the haystack masochists. But, instead attempts to bring both crowds together to enjoy what is a deep and thoughtful film that also has some thrills and chills to it. Ultimately, coming out of this film you should feel cathartic about the experience you had and the life you currently live.

Personal Rating:

review by P K

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