Just a disclaimer before you get disappointed by this movie, Arrival is not an alien invasion film. At least not in the way most people think of “alien invasion”. It’s belongs more in the “first-contact” genre, along with movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, is asked to translate an alien language when giant spaceships land on Earth. She examines their writing and tries to teach them basic vocabulary so the two species can understand each other. There aren’t any laser beams or explosions in this movie (the aliens, or Heptapods, as the scientists call them, actually sit still in their spaceships for most of the film). This is a very personal story that studies the relationship between two worlds and the connection that forms between them rather than instant war, as well as how that relationship affects one person and how she discovers strange and unique things about herself.
Amy Adams will probably get an Oscar nomination for her work in this film, and it that’s not too surprising, but I really was captivated by her performance. The character of Louise Banks is a linguist, and the only one on the team of scientists and military personnel, so she’s the only one who can get an idea of how the alien language might work. She’s frightened of the creatures at first, but she gets more comfortable and basically befriends them by the end. She’s a special person because while other people are learning about the Heptapods and trying to study them, Louise forms an emotional bond. Adams does a great job at portraying a character who’s curious and always learning, but also one who’s the smartest in the room at many times and is able to figure out details that others can’t.
Before I get any further, I’d like to include yet another disclaimer: Arrival is a thoughtful, profound, and at times, very confusing film. If deep themes and entertainment that challenges its viewer turns you off in any way, don’t waste your money seeing this movie. If, however, you love to analyze and decipher plots and messages in film, or you just want to see a movie that take its story and symbolism seriously, then you will most likely really appreciate Arrival. I saw the movie last night, and I was completely blown away by the time it ended, but I didn’t want to review it right away. There was so much to take in and I worried that jumping right into a discussion wouldn’t be smart. I really had to process every aspect of this movie before giving my thoughts on it, so I slept on it and thought about it for most of the day before sitting down and spilling my interpretation out on the screen.
This is a fairly slow-building film, which will be another thing that will turn audiences off. To me, though, there’s a difference between “slow-moving” and “slow-building”. A slow-moving film trudges along and bores its viewer, not really progressing in plot. A slow-building film, on the other hand, may seem uninteresting to some, but each scene builds upon the last at a steady pace. I, personally, was never bored with Arrival because I appreciated how the movie took its time and made every second count, rather than stretching out the story to fill up time. As new tidbits of information are revealed and our knowledge of the Heptapods and the characters increases, so does our curiosity. The way the movie steadily progresses and keeps bringing up new questions for the viewer to ask is what kept me consistently compelled and riveted by the story.
The alien contact and language translation aspect of this movie is what’s been advertised the most, and that’s a very large and very good portion of the film, but an eventual reveal at the end that messes with your head and makes you rethink certain plot points is what really leaves an impact. If Arrival had just been mysterious spaceships, an alien form of writing, and a curious linguistics professor, I would have probably really enjoyed it. The character reveal and very interesting insights that I still can’t fully explained are what make this movie as profound and beautiful as it is. I was watching it in the theater, having a good time and really admiring the filmmaking, but then the third act came and I thought: “Oh yeah, this is a Denis Villeneuve movie…”
Speaking of Denis Villeneuve, who is known for making very deep and sometimes very confusing films, his direction is absolutely magnificent. The film features gorgeous, wide establishing shots of the spaceships, as well as low-angle closeups of them that display the sheer size and immensity of these structures. The slow, subtle camera movements as Louise interacts with the Heptapods and the visual poetry when portraying these unusual creatures is astounding in every way. There isn’t a stale shot in this movie, so even if the plot seems slow to some people, there’s always something awe-inspiring to look at.
— Camden McDonald