Arrival (2016)

“Arrival” is a fantastic, mature, literary science-fiction film. It’s smart, steeped in real science, and very mechanically clever, but also very deeply emotional, affecting, and focused on character. This is exactly what I want out of science-fiction cinema; heady, thought-provoking films that showcase the best of what the genre is capable of, rather than devolve into inevitable action, unearned cloying emotion, or any other blockbuster issue. The film keeps a tight handle on its scope and scale, and certainly feels more like a strong science-fiction short story (like it’s based on) rather than a science-fiction blockbuster.

[Note: This review contains no spoilers, and one should certainly avoid spoilers for this film.]

The film certainly has its eerie moments, as well as a compelling plot, and engagement with “what if?” questions inherent to the genre, but the protagonist (played wonderfully by Amy Adams) and her story’s emotional core really are the centre of the film. The film initially appears to be following a fairly standard science-fiction alien invasion structure – overbearing military, mysterious aliens, ticking clock – but quickly morphs into something far stranger, far more emotional, and far more compelling. I can’t overstate how well the film synthesises the character work, with the plot, with the themes at play. This cohesiveness, this “unity of effect”, it really strengthens the film immeasurably.

The film is essentially about linguistic relativity, the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, the idea that a language one uses will alter the user’s mind, their learning of the language changing the person cognitively. Amy Adams plays a linguist who attempts to learn and decipher the language of a mysterious race of aliens that have landed on Earth, and the effects her work with the language have on her are the key to the film.

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When Denis Villeneuve, the director, begins to reveal more of the film’s hand so to speak, concepts like determinism vs free will, compatibilism, and eternalism in particular, are played with as well. Everything is so tightly tethered to the protagonist’s emotional journey that the more cerebral philosophical ideas never feel overwhelming or confusing. It really is a marvel how singularly focused the film is, how every aspect of the film works together to deliver the maximum impact…nothing is present without reason, all is unified.

The score is fantastic, often eerie (the atonal hums and warbles), sometimes strangely beautiful (the vocal sections). The cinematography is claustrophobic and looming at the appropriate times, yet sometimes positively Malick-esque. There are plenty of very tight close-ups of Amy Adams, with a wide angle lens, with a shallow depth of field, sometimes even with emotional voiceovers and classical-styled score. Very, very Malick, and very, very beautiful. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young did fantastic work.

It’s a beautiful, sophisticated, thoughtful film, and represents the very best of what science-fiction cinema can be. I give it four heptapods, and a caged canary.

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