Review: ‘Arrival’ restores film’s connection between sci-fi, philosophy

Luke Dudrick, Entertainment Editor


Existentialism has long been a defining cornerstone of science fiction, prevalent in works such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but in an era of film seemingly devoted to overblown, brainless computer effects, existentialism seems about as prevailing as celluloid film itself. Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Arrival revives the more thought-provoking aspects that have made past sci-fi films so transcendent and cerebral.

I was particularly concerned to see if Villeneuve could follow up on the success of 2015’s stellar Sicario, a scathing meditation on the general amorality of both factions in the drug war along the Mexican border. Villeneuve’s films are known to be challenging and critical, and his latest effort is certainly no exception. Arrival is a film that questions not only the existence of humanity, but also its unity, or lack thereof.

Arrival shows the response of humanity to large black, egg-shaped masses that appear at 12 random locations all across the world. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are brought in by military colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help make contact with the extraterrestrials at the site in Montana. The film follows the attempts of Banks and Donnelly to communicate with the alien visitors as the major powers of the world debate whether or not to use military force under growing pressure for action from the public. At first, the major nations collaborate, but after disparate opinions on how to handle the situation, communications are cut off and the disunity of our world is highlighted.

The on-screen chemistry between Adams and Renner is fantastic, giving the film a more emotional and soulful characteristic, something that many sci-fi greats are, perhaps unjustly, scrutinized for lacking. Arrival does what I thought Chris Nolan’s Interstellar ultimately failed to do in balancing emotion and intellect, as Adams’s character is well-developed with a nuanced backstory. Adams really steals the show with a riveting lead performance that drives the narrative forward.

Johan Johansson, who was nominated for Best Original Score for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and Sicario in 2015, provides a more subtle, yet equally effective score for Arrival. The dissonant sounds that inhabit Johansson’s soundscape are as forlorn and eerie as the subject matter on-screen.

Altogether, Arrival is a thoughtful, and successfully emotional sci-fi drama that poses many poignant questions about our world and those who inhabit it. The climax and conclusion are both perplexing and rewarding, but it is not always the most engaging film on its way there.

Villeneuve was selected to direct the long belated sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner, and as any classic fan would be, I was worried when I heard of the renewed interest in a sequel. However, die-hard fans of the original sci-fi masterpiece can rest easily knowing that the franchise is in good hands with Villeneuve and Johansson. The sequel is titled Blade Runner 2049, starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, and is currently slated for a late 2017 release.

Rating: 8.5/10