Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review of ARRIVAL: Arbitration with Aliens

February 15, 2017

"Arrival" is nominated eight times in this year's Oscar Awards, including nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is a science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director who had previously impressed with films like "Prisoners" (2013) and "Sicario" (2015). Screen writer Eric Heisserer takes a big leap up from his previous output in horror flicks like "Lights Out" (2016) and "The Thing" (2011) to create an enigmatic script based on a 1998 sci-fi short story by Ted Chiang entitled "Story of Your Life".

One day, twelve unusual bowl-shaped alien spacecraft appeared in different locations all across the planet. One of them hovered over Montana in the USA near a military camp where linguistics professor Louise Banks was brought in by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to try and establish communication with the two "heptapod" creatures on board. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise decodes the strange, seemingly random circular "messages" the aliens send. Meanwhile, Louise is also being unsettled by dreams of uncertain meaning featuring her and her daughter.

It is to the credit of this film that it pursues an uncommon path when it comes to alien visitors to Earth-- not as an action film (like "Independence Day") or a kids film (like "E.T."). "Arrival" is a very sober and thought-provoking film about establishing understanding - not only with the aliens, but among countries of the world, and also within one's self. The lead character is in fact a linguist, not really a hero we would expect in a sci-fi film with aliens, but she is a hero who embodies the main points of this special film.

It is very surprising indeed that for a film nominated for eight Oscar awards, the central performance of Amy Adams as Louise was the one overlooked.  Adams had been nominated for Oscar five times before, mostly for supporting roles in films like "Junebug" (2006), "Doubt" (2008), "The Fighter" (2010) and "The Master" (2012). When she was finally nominated for Best Actress in "American Hustle" (2013), she was not really the main character. But here in "Arrival," Adams is front and center with a restrained, low-key but emotionally-charged performance. 

The production design is very unusual as well as mind-boggling. The vertical orientation of those salad bowl space craft was a haunting sight as they hover. I was actually waiting for some moment of unity from these spaceship, but nothing like that really happens. The appearance of the heptapod alien creatures were also of strange design that do not really suggest intelligence or benevolence. We were not really given much information about their physiology or motivations, which was a pity.

The pictographic circular heptapod "statements" were an innovative idea of written language, even if they did look like stains left by coffee mugs on a table. My only problem there is that we do not really get a deeper insight as to how Louise managed to be able to read them with certainty, without actual scientific validation. She started with a white board and pen, which looked pitifully low-tech given the circumstances. Next thing, she already see her with a tablet that had software with various heptapod symbols she could click on, but we were not told how she came up with how these could be connected into a circle statement the aliens could comprehend.

Overall I still did like this film for the important message it was telling us -- the importance of communication through space and time. Its non-linear storytelling, glacial pace, moody look and breathy soundscape may not be for everyone, but I thought this message is well worth the 2-hours it takes to watch this film. However it cannot be denied that there were a lot of questions raised, foremost of which was the nebulous connection of Louise's alien interactions to her visions, as well as her mysterious critical phone call. Answers will not be immediately evident by the end of the film. These questions will challenge the viewers to think and discuss further after the film trying to unravel them. 8/10.


  1. The movie makes you think about life beyond our planet. It does seem interesting especially with all the award nomination.

  2. I'm generally interested in Oscar Nominated movies and I love Forest Whitaker (ever since Criminal Minds). An alien based story that isn't violent? That's new!

  3. OMG OMG OMG!!! Amy Adams??? + Aliens??? I love it!!!

    8 Oscar nominations??? Say no more, I'll watch it!!! I'll definitely get a DVD copy of this... better yet, a blu-ray copy!!!

  4. Of all the Oscar nominated movies, this has been on my must watch list for a very long time. Thanks to your review, I think I am going to watch it tonight :) Love your write up

  5. Your review makes me want to watch the movie. I thought of this sci-fi flick like a cliche one, but with your insight to it, I feel like to be vexed.

  6. This seems like a thought provoking movie. It would be interesting to see how Louise Banks will try to communicate with the creatures. Most of us tend to have an inner understanding and interpretation of others based on our limited knowledge so it`ll be fascinating how she`ll try and understand an unknown creature.

    ❀ Grace ❀

  7. Now this is the kind of movie I watch

  8. It sounds like it'll have a part 2? Alien has always put mystery in our planet and I think they really exist.