REVIEW: “Arrival”


The cryptic and ambiguous ad campaign for Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” made the movie impossible to define. Some things are obvious. “Arrival ” is clearly science fiction and it looks to be playing around in the ‘alien invasion’ sub-genre. Past that it’s hard to tell what this movie is. There isn’t a glimpse of alien warfare or mass destruction. Actually there is no big action highlight to speak of. Since Hollywood has influenced our leanings towards that type of movie, I’m certain some people will leave “Arrival” having expected something far different than what they were given.

Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker as difficult to pin down as his new movie. But there is one thing we can learn from his small but impressive filmography. Villeneuve loves tension and his ability to ratchet it up through a wild assortment of means is showcased in each of his movies. “Arrival” is a much different project but it doesn’t take long to recognize that common thread of tension.


The film is based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” which played with linguistics and communication inside of an alien encounter. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer stick close to that idea. Their adaptation isn’t about flying saucers, alien abductions, or the CGI devastation of Earth’s metropolises. It’s much more cerebral and metaphysical. I guess you could say this is the thinking man’s alien abduction movie.

Amy Adams plays Louise, a language professor who, along with everyone else on the planet, is shocked when twelve mysterious spacecraft land at different points around the globe. After one ship lands in Montana, Louise is approached by Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead a team sent in to communicate with the aliens. She is to work alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find the answer to the biggest question – what is their purpose here?


To answer that question Louise and Ian must first learn the alien’s highly advanced language which comes in the form of symbols resembling inkblots or coffee mug stains. For Louise it’s imperative that her superiors be patient, but as world governments begin to cave to paranoia it could be us who ushers in a global catastrophe.

There is another reoccurring layer to the story that feeds into the overall mystery. From the opening shot we get flashbacks to a tragedy from Louise’s past. The more she learns of the alien language the more vivid her flashbacks become. In addition to developing suspense, these sequences provide a human pulse to the film mainly because of Adams’ measured performance. She is sophisticated enough as an actress to remain genuine and understated which keeps her character emotionally grounded.


Villeneuve’s storytelling is both patient and methodical which is sure to frustrate some and blow the minds of others. Yet while deliberate, the aforementioned tension never fully leaves even in the quieter scenes. That’s in big part thanks to an ever-present sense of dread and an eerie ominous mood which is clearly a focal point. Villeneuve has shown himself to be a stylish, visual filmmaker and he combined his flair for tantalizing imagery with cinematographer Bradford Young’s love for deep shadows and natural lighting. Also adding to the mood is the ethereal, off-kilter score from Villeneuve favorite Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s both beautiful and foreboding – some of the best use of movie music this year. Plus there is the use of Max Richter’s exquisitely haunting “On the Nature of Daylight” which is such a perfect fit.

The film’s final act becomes a real mindbender as we start fitting together all of the pieces including some things we didn’t even know were pieces. This too is sure to split audiences between those who go for its mental gymnastics and those who see it as too much. Me, I loved it from the start. I appreciated the intelligent science fiction, but also how the film steps beyond genre. It turned out to be far more intimate and thought-provoking than I ever expected. And all of that on top of the superb visuals, art direction, and score. “Arrival” is an absolute gem from Denis Villeneuve and hopefully a precursor to his next movie, 2017’s Blade Runner sequel.




68 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Arrival”

  1. Man I’m telling you. Denis Villeneuve is one exciting filmmaker. If this is any indication as to what we have to look forward to in the Blade Runner sequel man oh man we are in for a treat. Arrival is just magnificent and all the things you mention here are things I embraced too. Plus, I just feel it’s a bit of a movie of the moment, by which I mean it’s optimism, it’s ability to show how mankind can cooperate and come together to work out a problem, is an antidote for the last couple of weeks during this wretched presidential election and the aftermath. God I loved it.

    • Man, let me tell you. I had such a great time with this movie. I was excited for it since I’ve grown into a pretty big fan of Villeneuve. But this blew my expectations. When I left the theater this afternoon I knew I had seen something special. But even after that I originally had this at 4.5 stars. But the more I thought on it the easier it was to convince myself it needed five (my first of the year). In fact I’m letting my son skip school tomorrow and I’m taking him to see it. I know, bad daddy.

      • Wow, that’s really awesome! Lucky guy! 😉 Yeah, I’m in complete agreement. I just watched something special undoubtedly. This is up there for me as well. A sci-fi classic.

      • And I love how it doesn’t cater to its genre. I haven’t read the short story but it sounds unique. The same thing could be said about Arrival.

      • Definitely. Yeah, I’m totally interested in reading the story. I’m glad they decided to change the title though; ‘Story of Your Life’ totally sounds more like an indie coming-of-age dramedy or something lol

      • LOVED IT! We talked about it all the way home. Get this, outside of the theater a group of elderly women were talking about the movie. One of them said “So they ended up having a space baby?” I was barely able to make it past them without losing it. Laughed so hard.

  2. Great review. Definitely one of the films of the year. Prisoners and Enemy were brilliant while Sicario was probably just too subtle for the genre; but still impressive. Loved this from start to finish.

    • Thanks Paul. Sicario was in my top 5 from last year. I really loved it. But I like this one more. Left my theater today with my mind racing. Still haven’t got it out of my mind. Seeing it again tomorrow.

      • Like Amy Adams, Emily Blunt was brilliant in Sicario and some of the scenes were very suspenseful, but unlike Arrival, the pay off was not as strong for me. Still a great genre film. Villeneuve and his team are producing one formidable film after another. Like the Coens, Innaritu and Tarantino his are now films I will watch first week as they offer something exciting and different from the Hollywood norm.

      • Same with me! He has broken into my group of must-see directors. He is a bit like Jeff Nichols. Not in terms of filmmaking style, but as current directors who have never made a bad film. He is exciting and I can’t wait to see what he brings to Blade Runner next year.

  3. Nice review. I really need to see this film and ‘Nocturnal Animals’. Villeneuve is a great and very exciting director. I don’t know if you’ve seen ‘Enemy’, but this was the first film of his I discovered and it’s brilliant.

    • I have seen Enemy. That’s a wild one! The first film of his I saw was the excellent Incendies. Prisoners is also good. And of course Sicario which I loved. Every film he has made is worth seeing.

  4. I loved this movie. It isn’t often these days that a film is made that gets you to really think about it, as well as emotionally pull you in. Everything just clicked so well in this film, from direction to story and especially the acting. Quite simply a real experience.

    • I so agree. Funny thing is I never expected to be blown away by it. I had high hopes simply due to the buzz, but this is the first 5 stars I’ve given this year. I love it when a movies blows up my expectations.

      • Movies that surprise me are usually held in very high regard. This was one of those movies as it emotionally and intellectually drew me into its story that was far from generic science fiction.

    • Awesome Cindy. Let me know what you think. I’m actually a bad dad today. I’m letting my 14-year-old son skip school and I’m taking him to see it. It’s so good.

      • Ooooh we did. The second viewing definitely verified my feelings. Five stars all the way for me. My son loved it too and we talked about it all the way home.

      • I’ve read a couple reviews where the consensus was good, but not great. I have to scratch my head sometimes how someone could NOT like it. What else could they want out of a movie?
        I suspect when I see ‘Arrival’ it will be like that.I have heard it’s somewhat like ‘Contact’ (which I loved).

  5. Great review! I’m with you 100% on it. Absolutely loved this film. Villenueve is becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. I need to check out his older stuff, I’ve loved everything he’s done the past few years.

    • Thanks. Looking forward to reading your take on it too. I’m so happy this is getting such positive buzz (about to head to the theater and watch it again). Villeneuve has really defined himself as a fine filmmaker. Have you seen Incendies? It’s the first film of his I saw. Definitely check it out too.

  6. You’re right – this is an absolute gem. Denis Villeneuve can do no wrong. This is definitely the best film of the year so far!

      • I love that it’s largely been getting the praise it deserves. I’ll be seeing it tomorrow for a second time, as well.

      • Well I can say I left the theater just as impressed as I did the first time. As you know you’ll be looking at the movie from a different perspective this time around. I think you’ll have a good time again.

  7. That picture reminds me of the time I was stationed in Okinawa and I spent the night in that massage parlor and the next morning they came in wearing those suits and took me to this room covered with plastic and wouldn’t let me out for six weeks. Brings back too many memories for me to see this.

  8. Great review, Keith. I am with you in that this movie totally blew away my expectations. I never thought an alien movie would make me FEEL things. I got home last night from seeing it and I cried for a good half hour. I couldn’t believe it. My first 5 star movie this year as well, for sure.

    • Awesome Justine! Love hearing that. I’ve seen it twice now and I got a little misty both times. You are so right when you stress “FEEL”. Never expected so much true emotion. I could watch it again today.

    • I would really be interested in hearing your thoughts. It definitely has caught me by surprise. I think what had won so many people over is its surprising originality. It was so different than I expected.

      • Ah originality…something I have been missing. Hopefully I can process it- if so I’ll definitely do a post.

      • I takes some time to process for sure. There is also a surprising amount of emotion in this thing. I got to me both times I watched.

  9. I wanted to love Keith, I really did. Where this fell short for me was in the emotional aspect. All of Denis’ movies, even the bizarre Enemy, have moved me, but this one just didn’t. Very possible it needs another watch though on my end.

    Still, while somewhat disappointing for me, Villleneuve has yet to make a bad movie and he imo is now in that rarefied air of directors who are appointment viewing upon any new release (Fincher, Tarantino, Nolan). Blade Runner 2 should be good at the very least.

    • I can see what your saying. If the emotional hook doesn’t get you it kinda falls apart. It had me tearing up (no easy feat) both times I saw it. Also that second viewing is such a different experience (in a really good way). And I’m with you Villeneuve has yet to make a bad movie and he is on my personal must-see directors list too. One thing about it, we won’t have to wait long till his next one. And what a bold undertaking it is!

  10. Damn I so want to see it and the raves it is getting everywhere make me so impatient but all the showings here are inconvenient for me :/ Hopefully they change next week. Great to read Villeneueve did so well with this genre given he is doing BR 2

    • Bummer! Hopefully you can catch it soon. It’s well worth it and definitely one to see in the theater. And yes, it definitely excites me more for Blade Runner.

  11. Villenueve is probably my favourite working director today. Enemy really threw me off the rails and I love everything about his approach. It’s so great to see you heap praise on this film (FIVE stars), so now I know what I’m really missing out on. Can’t wait! Seems like its hard to define and that’s probably the best part about Villeueve’s movies. Great work Keith 🙂

    • Villeneuve is a fantastic filmmaker and he hasn’t made a bad movie yet. He is such a craftsman especially when it comes to tension building. This one is tops though. It is hard to define but only because I don’t want to spoil anything. This really is a case of ‘the less you know’. My only five stars of the year so far.

  12. Alright so now I really need to go see this film. thanks for the great review! Maybe I could return the favour at some point, if you’re interested, please take a few minutes to check out my film review blog. I would really appreciate any feedback you have to offer me. Thanks again!

    • Thanks Sara. Definitely check this one out. It’s a case of a movie actually deserving the good press it’s getting. Also thanks for sharing the link to your blog. I really look forward to checking it out.

  13. Pingback: Top 10 movies of 2016? You choose. | Global News

  14. Given how much you loved this movie, I’m extremely surprised you haven’t checked out Villeneuve’s previous film, “Enemy”, by now (particularly since it’s currently on Netflix). I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard really great things about it.

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