Movie Review: ‘ARRIVAL’ – close encounters of the preferred kind

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Preston Barta // Editor

ARRIVAL
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg

The demands of sci-fi filmmaking often require massive sums of money, because when aliens arrive on screen, humanity has to blow them up. Thankfully, there are some movies that land without breaking bank or depending on smash-and-grab space conflict to warrant your attention.

With ARRIVAL, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (SICARIO, and the upcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel) pulls off a rare feat by creating a genre movie event that is both epic in scale and cerebral in depth. It’s a film that points its focus to human logic and the finer details that are typically grazed over.

Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella STORY OF YOUR LIFE, the intellectual sci-fi drama centers on Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is recruited by the government to decipher an extraterrestrial language when a dozen alien pods descend from the skies. Joined by a stern army colonel (Forest Whitaker) and a wisecracking physicist (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks must race against the clock before things get scary.

(L-R) Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly and Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Jeremy Renner (THE AVENGERS) as Ian Donnelly and Amy Adams (AMERICAN HUSTLE) as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The force behind ARRIVAL’s significance lies within its themes, grief and time being the two primaries. This is most notable at the film’s start when a series of images are shown that echo the infamous montage from Pixar’s UP — all while Max Richter’s hauntingly beautiful track “On the Nature of Daylight” plays under it (also used in SHUTTER ISLAND). It’s poignant to see Adams’ damaged character go through the turmoil in her personal life, yet it paints a thicker layer to the film’s vigor.

Right out of the gate we bear witness to a movie far different from what we anticipated. Its introduction of Dr. Banks and showing of worldwide panic evokes the horror and bewilderment had on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. From here, the story only continues to solidify its truth through fiction.

ARRIVAL is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, realistic first-contact stories to stem from Hollywood’s visionaries. There’s a simple yet profound way it goes about telling its narrative, and it’s worthy of applause.

While all that is well and good, there’s a monotonous undercurrent that keeps it from liftoff. While Villeneuve is a master of elevating material, in ARRIVAL — particularly toward the middle — there’s a grand sense of insipidity and murkiness that clouds over our entertainment. The story may call for the film’s color palette to work with different shades of gray, but life admittedly escapes the material from time to time.

Villeneuve shoots for the stars and falls short, but ARRIVAL’s slow-burning intensity and Adams’ leading performance are enough to invade our thoughts.

ARRIVAL opens nationwide today.

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About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.