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Arrival Movie Review

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Arrival (2016) movie poster Arrival

Theatrical Release: November 11, 2016 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Denis Villeneuve / Writers: Ted Chiang (story "Story of Your Life"); Eric Heisserer (screenplay)

Cast: Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg (Agent Halpern), Mark O'Brien (Captain Marks), Tzi Ma (General Shang), Abigail Pniowsky (8-Year-Old Hannah), Julia Scarlett Dan (12-Year-Old Hannah), Jadyn Malone (6-Year-Old Hannah), Frank Schorpion (Dr. Kettler), Lucas Chartier-Dessert (Private Lasky), Christian Jadah (Private Combs)

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Since making his name with the Oscar-nominated Incendies, French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has quickly established himself as someone in Hollywood that moviegoers around the world should pay attention to.
The September dramas Prisoners and Sicario both made their way to the Oscars with nominations in technical categories. Now, Villeneuve seems to set his sights even higher with Arrival, a film that opens in November with some prospects at major awards after making the fall festival rounds.

Adapting Ted Chiang's 1998 short story "Story of Your Life", Arrival presents alien life forms visiting Earth. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is about to start a linguistics class when she and the few students who have shown up figure out why everyone else has skipped. Twelve enormous alien vessels -- rounded on one side, flat on the other -- have docked around the world, to civilization's concern and bewilderment. There's one in Montana, one in China, two in Russia, and others scattered about. The world's greatest minds cannot agree on why the locations have been picked and why these extraterrestrial visitors are here.

To answer the latter, the U.S. military brings in Dr. Banks, who still has security clearance from a Farsi translation she did to assist an anti-terrorist mission two years earlier. She insists she cannot work from audio recordings alone. Thus, in the middle of the night, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) flies her in to the Montana site, where she will work alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). The two of them are in charge of making sense of the aliens' language.

In "Arrival", linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) tries to acquaint herself with alien visitors' language and to teach them English.

They meet with two of the "heptapods" (named on account of their seven limbs), whom they come to name Abbott and Costello. The aliens communicate by opening up one of their extremities like a starfish and quickly drawing a circle with notches around it. Banks tries to wrap her head around the symbols while trying to teach the aliens words in the English language and also coming to grips with her life with a beloved daughter.

As in Sicario, the versatile Villeneuve hooks us by building atmosphere and generating suspense. Reminiscent of Willard's journey to Captain Kurtz's ominous Cambodian compound, the opening act of Arrival is effortlessly inviting and absorbing. We soon come to realize this is neither your typical alien invasion story nor your run-of-the-mill science fiction film. It's a thoughtful, intelligent, human drama that has more in common with Gravity and Interstellar than just a fall release date. That groundwork makes it easy to accept that we're often watching two educated people trying to teach and learn the most basic of words to these odd-looking otherworldly beings.

Chiang's story is not the most conducive to a feature-length narrative or cinema at all. But screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, 2011's The Thing) does what he can to give the film some structure. More importantly, Villeneuve and his team of skilled craftsmen (from Sicario composer J๓hann J๓hannsson to A Most Violent Year cinematographer Bradford Young) make Arrival a unique, memorable, and cinematic experience.

Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) works with Louise to establish communication with Earth's alien visitors.

Nonlinearity is part of the film's fabric, a fact that seemed to leave my screening audience silent and uncertain when the end credits arrived. It seems safe to say this won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it should especially disappoint those who go in expecting something familiar, manipulative, safe, mainstream, and commercial. Arrival is not really any of those things.

It is well-acted, though. Since breaking out a decade ago, Adams has been one of the most consistently compelling actresses around. She carries this film on her performance, not quite as much Sandra Bullock carried Gravity, but almost to that extent. This isn't her first time as solo lead, but it's an all-around better experience than Tim Burton's middling Big Eyes. While the Academy has clearly displayed an appreciation for Adams' work,
bestowing upon her five nominations (but no wins) since 2005, picking up a sixth nomination will require the Oscars recognizing an actress in a sci-fi film for only the third time ever, following Gravity's Bullock and Aliens' Sigourney Weaver. I wouldn't rule out a nomination, and at the very least one from the Golden Globes (where she won back to back Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical) seems a sure thing. But I also thought Emily Blunt would feature in last year's competition for Sicario. Even if Adams gets overlooked, the film seems likely to extend Villeneuve's streak of technical nominations for the aspects I already singled out.

With a production budget of $50 million, Arrival doesn't bear the weight of Gravity and Interstellar's commercial expectations. Still, that's a significant amount of money to invest in an unconventional, actionless sci-fi movie with a female lead. (By comparison, Sicario only cost $30 million.) There is definitely a chance that Arrival underperforms, but favorable reviews (thus far they've been perfect) should go a long way to helping this film find viewers, whether or not they leave satisfied

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Doctor Strange • Hacksaw Ridge • Moonlight • Loving
Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Sicario • Prisoners | Written by Eric Heisserer: Lights Out
Amy Adams: Big Eyes • The Fighter • Enchanted • American Hustle • The Master • Doubt • Her
Jeremy Renner: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters • The Immigrant • Avengers: Age of Ultron
Gravity • Interstellar

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Reviewed November 11, 2016.



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