ARRIVAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language


Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Eric Heisserer

(based on the short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE by Ted Chiang)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma & Mark O’Brien

Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. Besides delivering two of the best thrillers of the 2010’s (PRISONERS and SICARIO), he’s also currently attached to helm the upcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel. After doing many realistic and human stories, ARRIVAL showcases what this man can do with a big budget, the sci-fi genre, and lavish effects. Half extraterrestrial tale and half emotional human drama, ARRIVAL is a refreshingly uplifting, emotional, and brilliantly written piece of smart science-fiction!


After twelve shell-shaped UFOs touch down across Earth, expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds herself recruited on a top-secret government mission to forge communicate with the aliens. Nations across the globe are uniting together in an effort to discover what the aliens’ reason for coming to our world is and if they come in peace. However, rifts form between the countries as international paranoia sets in. Aided by scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and well-spoken military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker), Louise is in a race against time to discover the purpose of the aliens’ visit…before potentially dire mistakes and miscommunications are made.


While most alien films revolve around invasions and potentially apocalyptic scenarios, ARRIVAL has a refreshingly positive outlook on first contact. This is especially surprising when you consider that this director’s previous films have revolved around kidnappings, tragedies and drug cartels. ARRIVAL is an uplifting, beautiful film that had me walking out of the theater appreciating life and the world in general. The aliens are a huge plot point, but not necessarily essential to the film’s deeper message. As Louise Banks, Amy Adams sells herself as a genius linguist with tragic memories…while Jeremy Renner provides some laughs as her at-odds partner. Forrest Whitaker plays a three-dimensional military man, who doesn’t ever fully revert to the clichéd one-note “we need to blow them out of the sky” mentality. Michael Stuhlbarg is believable as a cynical jerk who is the closest thing to a full-blown antagonist in this story.


ARRIVAL’s plot plays like an arthouse drama mixed with a sci-fi film as dual storylines move forward. We’re shown the alien encounters and attempts to communicate through their language, all of which are handled in a technical way that’s made easy to understand for the average viewer who doesn’t have a college-level knowledge of languages (myself included). Meanwhile, the emotional Amy Adams story arc almost seems like it might become cheesy or melodramatic at any moment, but surprisingly never crosses that line. The dual plotlines are expertly weaved so that they feed off each other and make the hugely impactful ending even more powerful. I won’t give any spoilers or details away, but I wanted to rewatch this film the minute that it was over. This complex plot will only get better with multiple viewings (ala THE PRESTIGE).


Denis Villeneuve really hasn’t played around with large-scale special effects before and this is easily the biggest film that he’s made yet. The aliens almost resemble Lovecraftian creatures with their features wisely remaining obscured for the most part. Their visual language is creative and detailed, lending to a few of the plot’s later developments. The “shell” spaceship is simple, but executed with style and trippy gravity effects (making for one of the opening act’s more awe-inspiring moments). The effects aren’t the main focus of ARRIVAL though, instead that is firmly planted on the characters and story. Much like last year’s EX MACHINA, this is a brilliant piece of science fiction cinema that could easily go down as a future classic in the genre.


In a year that’s been filled with a divided society and lots of big-screen movies based on depressing true life stories, ARRIVAL arrives as an unexpected bit of welcomed optimism. Though I can’t say for sure if this is my favorite of Villeneuve’s filmography (he’s delivered a few A+-worthy movies throughout the years), ARRIVAL definitely keeps his reputation high as one of the best filmmakers working today. Amy Adams plays a compelling protagonist, while the side characters are fleshed-out and never become walking clichés. The effects look impressive. The cinematography is gorgeous and the soundtrack subtly aids the film’s already strong emotional core. Most importantly, the writing is fantastic. ARRIVAL has one of the best endings that I’ve seen in years and makes me want to watch the film again through new eyes. This is one of the best science fiction films of the 2010’s and is sure to please those who love blockbuster entertainment with brains.

Grade: A+

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