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Arrival - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Special Effects: B+

I guess I once again fell prey to expectations with Arrival. I wanted something amazing, and instead got something merely really good. Damn it!

Taken in separate parts, though, there's a lot to love about this movie -- starting from the beginning. When the half-egg shaped spaceships arrive, twelve of them around the globe, instead of focusing on the ships, the focus is almost strictly focused on the people in the first several minutes. We see reactions on faces rather than sci-fi spectacle. From the beginning, it feels a bit like the anti-Independence Day. There are similar shots upon the arrival of UFOs, but a radically different emotional tone.

Such is the case with this entire story, which is much more concerned with feelings than with wowing its audience with visual effects. It's all about communication, quite literally: Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguist tapped by the U.S. government to help in getting messages across to the alien creatures inside these ships.

I do have a few criticisms. Nothing major, but enough to weaken the clear intention to impress us with story structure rather than any thrilling set pieces (of which there are none). Arrival presents itself as an intellectual exercise in cinema, but the scientific and linguistic discussions are vastly oversimplified. Even the discussions between Louise and the army guy who is calling the shots (Forest Whitaker) are transparently simplistic means of plot propulsion, when they could have been used to give the story greater depth. The things they try first in trying to communicate with the aliens are so obvious, they would never necessitate the country's top minds. Any average schmo could come up with writing the word HUMAN on a wipe board.

But, okay, we can get past that. It's just a movie, after all. And to a degree, Arrival becomes a bit of a mystery movie. Louise and her companion astrophysicist, Ian (Jeremy Renner), go into the spaceship each time an opening appears at its base at 18-hour intervals, and the visits begin to have an emotional effect on Louise. She has visions, of conversations with a sick daughter. These visions are very vivid, as evidenced by particularly clever sound editing. What are the aliens doing to her?

Arrival has a definite twist, but of a different sort, and it comes at you very gently. You see it coming just a few steps ahead of its explicit reveal, which is a fun experience given the way the story ultimately plays with time. It renders the movie a particularly memorable experience, in a way slightly removed from most movies. Its closest cinematic relative would probably be the 1997 movie Contact, which we could probably still safely call a better movie given that it was based on a novel by Carl Sagan. Arrival is undeniably compelling but there is no clear scientific genius behind its story.

Also, in this movie we actually get to see the aliens -- giant septapods, seven-legged creatures that tower over our human characters. I have mixed feelings about their renderings. They tend to be shrouded in thick fog, mostly behind a transparent partition, like creatures that have locked themselves in a giant sauna. They establish a means of written communication with Louise by squirting a sort of black smoke out of their limbs, like squid ink. They make circular patterns that look like coffee mug circle stains crossed with Rorschach inkblots. Someday I want to see a movie where aliens arrive and they are surprised to find we are the giants, and they are the size of house cats. Hold on, let me write myself a note.

In the end, Arrival, with all its references to paranoid regimes around the world responding to the alien spacecraft with hostility, is about how humanity needs to learn how to work together. I guess you could call it Contact meets The Day the Earth Stood Still. The more I think about it, the less original this movie seems.

Except for those visions Louise keeps having. This is very much Louise's story, and is strictly from her perspective. The emotional effect the aliens are having on her is the key to the whole story, and also to how the audience experiences it. That does make all the difference, and is in its own way quite lovely. It takes Arrival in an unexpected direction. It's a transparently emotionally manipulative one, but it works, in a way reachable to wide audiences. You leave the theatre feeling like a movie just did something quite nice to you, and who wants to complain about that?

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner get down to business in ARRIVAL.

Overall: B+
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