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


Preston Barta // Editor

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.

Related Articles:

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.