Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: Arrival

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The science fiction film has seen a creative surge in recent years, thanks to a series of thoughtful takes on the genre by a number of big-name filmmakers, such as Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), Christopher Nolan ("Interstellar"), Ridley Scott ("The Martian") and, now, Denis Villeneuve, whose "Arrival" is so vastly different from his recent pictures - the woefully underrated thriller "Prisoners" and the tense drug war drama "Sicario" - that it displays an impressive range for the up-and-coming filmmaker.

Although the picture doesn't quite stack up to Villeneuve's previous successes, it's a unique take on a close encounter and features a story that doesn't involve an invasion so much as a visit that nearly leads to a crisis. It's closer in nature, in other words, to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" than "Independence Day" or films of that ilk.

As the movie opens, we meet Louise, a language specialist who is called in to attempt to translate after the Earth is visited by a series of shell-like spaceships. She is teamed up with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) and the two of them are tasked with finding out the purpose of the extraterrestrials' visit. Although we mostly see the aliens through a see-through wall shrouded in mist, we can glimpse gigantic octopus hands that squirt ink, which is the beings' form of writing.

It's difficult to discuss the plot of "Arrival" too closely because there is a significant twist that will color your interpretation of the entirety of the film once it actually arrives. Suffice it to say that it's a clever twist and one that is used to give you a different view of everything you have seen, rather than just pull the rug out from under your feet.

Adams gives a tightly controlled performance as Louise, whose life outside her work involves a series of sequences that are interwoven in which she interacts with a young girl that we assume to be her daughter. Renner's Ian tells Louise that he too is alone, which helps to form a bond between the two specialists. The cast is rounded out by Forest Whitaker as a military man overseeing the operation to communicate with the aliens and Michael Stuhlbarg as a hasty government agent.

The film occasionally lags, especially in the early scenes when events that are fairly seismic are portrayed as low-key and the repetitiveness of Louise and Ian's visits with the extraterrestrials also halts the picture's momentum from time to time.

But all in all, "Arrival" bounces around some fascinating ideas, includes some impressive but modest special effects and a strong lead performance and, ultimately, arrives at a concept that reminded me of - of all things - "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." To say anymore would be to give away the film's secrets, but Villeneuve's film poses an interesting question to its audience as to how we would choose our actions if we already knew the result. "Arrival" is occasionally a little too toned down for its own good, but is - at its best - thoughtful and insightful.

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