‘Arrival’ Review: Intelligent (and Moving) Invasion


Movie Rating:


Generally, when giant alien spacecraft appear out of nowhere around the globe, it’s a bad thing. If ‘Independence Day’ proved nothing else, it’s that those ET ain’t friendly and deserve to be greeted with a mixture of firepower and one-liners. Then there are the more thoughtful outings in this particular genre, like Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’, which plays with the military’s inevitably paranoid response to such an event, but doesn’t necessarily turn first contact into an intergalactic arms war.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, our hero in this sci-fi tale. She’s a linguistics professor just as shocked as anyone else when monolithic ships from space appear without warning on Earth. She’s even more surprised when an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) shows up at her door asking for her help. She’s done well finding ways to communicate with unknown languages before and now she has a doozy to crack.

On the journey to an alien ship in the desert, Banks also meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Together, they board the ship and meet the practically Lovecraftian tentacle beasts from beyond, who communicate through what can only be described as inky alien symbols. Slowly, Banks and Donnelly begin to crack the code. At the same time, tensions are rising as the reactions of other governments around the world are a bit more militant and there’s pressure to attack. Meanwhile, Banks is plagued with memories of a past trauma that seem to grow more intense as she spends time with the creatures from another world.

‘Arrival’ is not exactly a sci-fi epic that comes out with guns blazing. That’s not really the Villeneuve way. The director behind ‘Incendies‘, ‘Enemy‘ and ‘Sicario‘ likes taking his time and building atmosphere more than blowing stuff up real good (though he can certainly do that just fine). His visuals are as stunning as always. Each frame is beautifully composed and each edit builds toward a careful visual tapestry. The alien ships and creatures are otherworldly, imposing, and just slightly beyond the norm of the usual designs in this sort of movie. Villeneuve plays games with gravity on their craft and maintains an uneasy sense of tension from the first frame to the last. The film is a work of grand spectacle, just one designed to worm its way into the heads and hearts of viewers rather than shove them into a theme park ride. The director shows an affinity for the genre and its ambiguities which suggests that the ‘Blade Runner’ franchise is in good hands with him.

Beyond all the awe-inspiring imagery, this is very much a human story. Amy Adams grounds and carries the movie on her shoulders admirably. It’s too cold a world with stakes too high for the actress to do any of her endearingly adorable comedy, but she crafts a strong and moving presence that carries quite a bit of emotional weight. The story has secrets that are constructed impressively. Villeneuve plays with the conventions of movie language to make us think we’ve seen something that’s actually completely different, and when everything finally snaps together, the result has a big weepy impact.

Some might find it a bit corny, and indeed the story has a few minor contrivances to pull off its ambitions in a reasonable running time. However, for the most part, viewers can expect to be wowed and moved in equal measure. The entire cast does an impressive job of keeping this otherworldly odyssey small enough to feel human, but Adams holds it all together and she is extraordinary (as always).

For those who pooh-pooh the idea that blockbuster entertainment can also offer artistic satisfaction, ‘Arrival’ offers welcome proof otherwise. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a rather amazing one suited to both the populist popcorn munching and pretentious coffee shop crowds. This is certainly going to be all over those year-end “Best of” lists and gobble up award nominations, but hopefully it’ll draw some box office dollars as well. If filmmakers like Villeneuve can be allowed to play with the big dogs in the blockbuster movies race, the multiplexes will get a lot more interesting.


  1. Les

    Wow . . . I have looking forward to seeing this movie on Saturday and I just checked the AMC Theater in my area and they will not be showing “Arrival” this weekend. My town, instead, gets “Almost Christmas” and “Shut In”. I did check, however, and the next closest AMC Theater that is showing “Arrival” is 100 miles away, so it appears that I and my family will have to make a long trek to see “Arrival”. Arrival is currently 98% on RottenTomatoes but I get 43% “Almost Christmas”. Shut In, no RottenTomatoes ratings.

    Last weekend, my family and I had to drive 100 miles, to the same town, to see “Hacksaw Ridge” at the same AMC Theater. We didn’t have any other choice.

    Oh, well. Just a 3 hr.+ round road trip plus the movie time itself.

    • T.J. Kats

      Just for my own curiosity can I ask where you live?

      Im curious because it is playing at 10 places within 20 miles of me(suburb of Indianapolis).

      • Les

        The AMC Theatre in my area only has (8) total theaters so, yea, I live in a rather small midwestern community. The AMC Theater I am referring to is in Hays, KS. The larger AMC Theater 100 miles away is Salina, KS. It is not all that much larger but it does have several more theaters at the Mall Cinema there which allows for the additional movies to be playing.

        No other Theater Group owns anything in my area.

          • Les

            The Accountant, Almost Christmas, Dr. Strange (1 2D, 1 3D), Inferno, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Shut In, and Trolls.

          • Les

            Also, it is kinda frustrating since we go to numerous movies at this same theater and they have been showing trailers off and on over the past weeks, at other movies we have went to, for Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival and then they never actually show these (2) movies at this particular theater. I guess all of the movies they are holding over are in the top 10, however.

            Typically, if a new movie doesn’t show its opening weekend, then AMC Hays never shows it even a week or two later.

    • Les

      Based upon http://www.boxofficemojo.com box office predictions for this weekend, it does not make sense to not show Arrival. Boxofficemojo is not always correct but they are reasonably accurate.

      Doctor Strange (3,882 theaters) – $40 M
      Trolls (4,066 theaters) – $27 M
      Arrival (2,317 theaters) – $25 M
      Almost Christmas (2,376 theaters) – $12 M
      Hacksaw Ridge (2,971 theaters) – $9.5 M
      Boo! A Madea Halloween (2,104 theaters) – $3.9 M
      The Accountant (2,411 theaters) – $3.8 M
      Inferno (2,656 theaters) – $3.1 M
      Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2,584 theaters) – $3.1 M
      Shut In (2,058 theaters) – $2.8 M

      The AMC Theater in my area chose to show a movie “Shut In” that is only projected to make around $2.8 million this weekend while Arrival is projected to make $25 million this weekend. Regardless, I will be making the 100 mile round trip
      to see Arrival.

  2. T.J. Kats

    The wife and I are seeing it on Sunday and I can’t wait. Prisoners and Sicario are a few of my favorite films of the last few years.

  3. Bolo

    Really looking forward to this. I’m a big fan of Villeneuve (and Adams). He’s the only reason I think ‘Blade Runner 2’ might actually be good, although I would still prefer if Villeneuve was handling ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Blade Runner’ was left alone.

  4. Chaz

    What a track record, Sicario was really damn good and I loved Enemy, strangest ending I’ve probably ever seen but such a great build up and one of those movies that you can watch multiple times and still never quite understand, and Prisoners was such a tense flick with awesome performances so I really want to see this and hope to some time this weekend 🙂

  5. David Staschke

    This movie was pretty impressive. Definitely in my top 5 of this year. It’s not quite as great as Hell or High Water, but it’s definitely the best sci-fi movie if the year.

    • Bolo

      Really solid movie. Even though it was one of those movies about giant space ships hovering over various locations all around the world, the subject matter had more in common with ‘Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind’ than ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’.

  6. Looks like I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I thought it was more Hollywood schmaltz.

    The movie is packed with first contact scenarios we’ve seen a dozen times before, and just when you think things might get interesting – nope, the film doesn’t give us any “real” answers…it just gets sappy and tries to push the audience’s emotional buttons.

    Its not a horrible movie…but it is a huge disappointment.

    • EM

      It’s not a minority of one. Even as schmaltz the film fails, for it doesn’t work much to endear characters to the audience. I’ll give the film credit for presenting visually unusual (if not especially imaginative) aliens and for the unusual characteristics of their language, but these things are not enough to hang two hours of movie on.

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