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When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team – lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly humanity. (From Paramount’s official synopsis)

 Arrival
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is the latest in a annual lottery of high-concept, intellectually savvy space adventures that garner critical praise and lucrative box office receipts. But, while it follows in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), and Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) from a categorical perspective, it does approach serious science fiction from a socially conscious angle. The film’s immediate problems lie less in its objective qualities or even its part in the recent ring of ‘grown-up sci-fi’ motion pictures. The issue is, as it often is, the familiarity of the subject matter. Alien interaction is certainly not reserved to pulp, action, or horror – there is an existing tradition of subtle, complex human/alien relations in movies, from Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997), which is thematically similar to Villeneuve’s film. There’s even a David Twohy movie already called The Arrival (1996) that has a superficial resemblance to its 2016 counterpart.

Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who, before 2016, was known for writing horror franchise remakes, prequels, and sequels) were working from Ted Chiang’s short story The Story of Your Life (1998) and appear to acknowledge the necessity of certain subgenre tropes. They attempt to curtail the issue by pressing them to the background. Societal panic, for example, is only shown or discussed on television sets. Characters do tend to suffer a bit in this regard. Despite good performances and natural arcs that serve the emotional components of the story, motivations and defining traits are borderline inane in their familiarity – the bereft main protagonist who rediscovers hope throughout her ordeal, the optimistic sidekick that makes wisecracks, the straight-laced military commander who doesn’t trust the aliens, the scientists that get into a dick-measuring contest the second they meet, et cetera. Fortunately, these issues are usually part of the table setting, while the big questions they support are the actual meal. The meat & potatoes of the situation is the xenolinguistic angle, which, while certainly touched upon in Close Encounters (where music/lights incite conversation), has never, to my knowledge, been the driving concept of a film like this. In almost any other movie, Amy Adams’ character would be a supporting role that exists merely to supply the hero with exposition. Here, not only is she the lead, but her complex field of study is the centerpiece of the entire narrative – the fate of the world rests on her deciphering the extra terrestrial language. Even better, the filmmakers find relatively organic ways to describe the complexities of xenolinguistics (as well as some other scientific concepts).  

 Arrival
I’m still not particularly well-versed in Villeneuve’s career. Before this, I’d only seen Prisoners (2013) – a lifeless, overdrawn pastiche of Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves (also 2013, so the similarities are apparently coincidental) and George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (Dutch: Spoorloos, 1988) – and the similarly sombre, but infinitely more successful drug-trafficking thriller, Sicario (2015). By that measure, he was 50/50 and his participation was not a tic in Arrival’s favour, as far as I was concerned. Fortunately, the forlorn and lyrical style he borrowed from Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick fits Heisserer’s story. He handles the science fiction elements with particular grace, presenting an species with familiar, yet appropriately alienating technology and environments. The deliberate pacing that made Prisoners so impossibly long also fits, especially considering the relatively tight 116-minute (including credits) runtime. Once the narrative focus has been established – and it revolves exclusively around Adams’ character – there is little time wasted on unnecessary side plots or convoluted middle-act crises.

 Arrival

Video


Arrival was shot on Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented on this Blu-ray in 1080p, 2.40:1 video (there is also a 4K UHD release). This certainly is a handsome motion picture all around, but I doubt I’m alone in thinking that Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young pushed the darkness too far during some sequences There are a number of times that I could not tell at all what was happening on screen due to the lack of highlights. I didn’t see the film in theaters, so I have no point of comparison, but will still assume that this not is a Warner Bros. Godzilla ‘14-type error on the Blu-ray’s part – especially since the darkest sequences feature already lightened black levels, surely in an attempt to wring a bit more detail from the image (note how much blacker the matte bars are than the photography between them). Levels aside, the rest of the transfer matches the expectations of a studio release shot with Alexa cameras, including complex details, smooth gradations, and well-defined shapes. Young pulls the focus tightly, which leads to a lot of soft edges and blurry blends, and some of these – especially the deep-set ones – are marred by banding/posterisation effects. The general palette is desaturated to assist the gloomy mood, but the colours rarely appear unnaturally graded, save an extra hint of cobalt blue during those really dark scenes.

Audio


Arrival is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. I’m a little surprised it doesn’t feature a Dolby Atmos track, actually, considering the relatively mundane Jack Reacher: Never Look Back got one, but certainly didn’t find this mix lacking (especially since I don’t have Atmos capabilities, anyway). The mix is very delicate, featuring long, dry silences flecked by soft ambience. It’s as if the entire in-movie world is holding its breath until the protagonists figure out what the aliens want. This low sound floor sets the stage for booming contrast, such as when a military helicopter breaks the stark quiet of a suburban night. The haunting score is by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who worked on Prisoners and Sicario) with opening and ending credit music by Black Mirror composer Max Richter. Jóhannsson divides the soundtrack between warmer, more ‘human’ strings and colder, more ‘alien’ experimental cues. At its best, this score is the modern answer to something like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where moving classical pieces were set against dispiriting dissonance. The music and alien language is often blended into one writhing, multi-directional mass that overwhelms all other noise. These moments are definitely demo-worthy, despite the lack of Atmos compatibility.

 Arrival

Extras


  • Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival (30:03, HD) – The filmmakers discuss making the movie, from Ted Chiang’s original story, to Heisserer’s script, to final film, focusing on sciences and themes over production difficulties.
  • Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design (13:59, HD) – As the title indicates, this featurette covers the film’s complex and often abstract sound design.
  • Eternal Recurrence: The Score (11:24, HD) – Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson talks about his musical inspirations, ideas, and technical processes.
  • Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process (11:20, HD) – The filmmakers discuss the challenges of editing the film and incorporating the nonlinear structure.
  • Principles of Time, Memory & Language (15:24, HD) – Chiang and scientific consultants explain some of the story’s more complex concepts.


 Arrival

Overall


Arrival is a fresh and satisfying sci-fi drama that shoulders occasionally awkward tropes and simplified characterizations. It also trusts its audience to follow some pretty complex ideas, which is refreshing, and ties together its heaviest sci-fi elements without poking narrative holes in its main character’s plotline (unlike a certain Christopher Nolan movie that covers similar existential ground). Paramount’s Blu-ray looks about as good as it can, considering how dark the photography is, sounds spectacular, and offers five very informative behind-the-scenes featurettes.

 Arrival

 Arrival
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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