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Movie Review: #Arrival

The brainy and beautiful Arrival is also a powerful cinematic experience.

Review by Matt Cummings

WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers.

If the cinema year of 2016 has proven one thing, it's that Hollywood still isn't afraid to let loose with an intelligent film while impaling us with big, dumb (and only sometimes enjoyable) action fare. Arrival is a triumph of modern film-making, a bold, intelligent tale that's far deeper than the trailers might suggest, and immediately establishes itself as one of a handful of must-see films this Fall.

Linguistic Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned to one of 12 landing sites throughout the world to decode messages by an alien species she lovingly refers to as Abbott and Costello. These gigantic multipeds utter a seemingly incomprehensible language, punctuated by a beautiful inky broken circular writing. These 12 massive crescent-shaped vessels stand elegantly on their sides, suspended by anti-gravity that allows Louise to float up and into its core, which is bounded by a massive glass wall. There, she and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) seek to decode Abbott and Costello's messages before the world destroys itself in a fit of mindless violence and cratering stocks. But Louise is onto something - waking up to powerful memories of her child who died of a rare form of cancer at the age of 12 - and realizing a connection between them and the aliens' arrival. Faced with both unimaginable tragedy and a life-altering decision to decode the transmissions, Louise journeys to the far reaches of her mind and even time itself to unravel a mystery thousands of years in the making.

It's so refreshing to see an alien contact movie like Arrival that doesn't need to destroy cities in order to prove its point. Instead, what we get is genuine Science-Fiction, a drama embraced with space/science elements. The result is almost always mesmerizing, bolstered by impressive camerawork by Director Denis Villeneuve and Cinematographer Bradford Young as well as solidly appealing performances by its leads. In the case of those behind the camera, Villeneuve crafts another potential masterpiece, unafraid to visually push Screenwriter Eric Heisserer's unconventional script into exciting new directions. But there's more going on here with the story than just amazing visuals: Arrival has a very specific message about collaboration, that intelligence and hard work can bring you amazing things. It's certainly a message we all need to hear right now.

Powered by one of the most unique scores you'll ever hear - courtesy of Composer Johann Johannsson - Arrival is deeply moving and immensely powerful throughout. It's not something that can drive your work day, nor is it memorable enough to add to a playlist, but it's incredibly unique and therefore something you have to hear just to appreciate. It's just one of the ways Villenueve refuses to dumb-down the audience's experience, also utilizing super nerd communication language and complex interstellar space travel concepts. If Director Alfonso Curason's Gravity opened the door and Christopher Nolan's masterpiece Interstellar sent us through it via a wormhole, Arrival completes the process by taking us to the other side, to meet those responsible for our journey in the first place. And they do need our help, as their culture is on the verge of collapse. How humans are supposed to do that is ultimately unclear, and it's one of the small nagging problems that arise as soon as our initial amazement wears off.

This is most certainly not the popcorn fun of Star Trek Beyond, opting for a more mature and immediately recognizable Oscar run. Both subgenres can easily exist, even though they offer very different messages. For Arrival, it's a story about love, loss, time travel, time bending, and communication that's as elegant as any Universal Translator. Sometimes that message - and the way it comes to us - isn't as elegant, but it's always interesting. There's the near-completely unrecognizable Michael Stuhlbarg as the thinly-drawn CIA jackboot who's simply there to follow orders. Whitaker - who's slated to appear in a potentially more interesting role in December's Rogue One - is only slightly better because several of his lines are more memorable. Again, he's there to push buttons rather than represent his government, a diagram of differences that might have made Heisserer's script even better.

But so much works in Arrival that it's hard to ignore its ultimate beauty. Adams' subtle performance is nothing short of terrific, never raising her voice and practicing incredible restraint even as her world undergoes incredible change. As a professor, she's constantly surrounded by people but ultimately alone, never accepting the death of her daughter and ushering in a divorce that will leave her home almost frozen in time. Renner, who is given so little to do at too many points, is still vastly enjoyable, as his respect for Louise and almost giddy response to meeting aliens feels exactly on tone. But there is a big reveal here - actually several that happen almost at once - which makes Louise and Ian's ultimate conclusion all that more powerful. The film's odd structure - mirroring the nature of the alien writing - might be hard to follow, and you're certain to leave with questions. But that's the point, and I'd far prefer that to much of the mindless pap we were being force-fed during the disastrous Summer.

Pushing the limits of Science-Fiction and perhaps film itself, Arrival stands as one of the best films of the year, a powerful message that hope can beat despair in a time when it seems like the latter is already upon us. It might be too slow for some, but it's brainy, beautiful, and certainly worth your time if you can stick with it. Based on the bold storytelling of Arrival, I cannot wait for Villenueve's upcoming Blade Runner sequel. But for now, enjoy this uplifting epic and remind yourself that goodness can come from an industry that seems stuck sometimes on delivering splashy, overtly sexualized tales.

Arrival is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and has a runtime of 116 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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