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Film Review: Unconventional first contact defines humanity in “Arrival”

Grade: A+

In a time when politicians hide behind personal attacks, angry diatribes and unknown fears and men would rather fight battles with assault rifles and nuclear warheads because peace talks are considered “the act of a coward,” it takes an external entity to unify people for a common good. Much like the classic “Independence Day,” “Arrival” addresses the question, “What would humans do if extraterrestrials came to Earth?” Surely this means things do not go smoothly.

Amy Adams (Louise Banks) takes charge in her role as a linguist who’s assigned to decipher the language of the aliens. She stars alongside former “American Hustle” co-star Jeremy Renner, who plays intelligent theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly and Forest Whitaker, a senior military officer who leads a battalion in the quest for information on the aliens that landed in Montana.

“Arrival” lives up to the definition of a science fiction thriller film, but when all of the events play out in such striking beauty as the do throughout the movie, it’s much more than that. This is a movie that’s based on the novella “Story of your Life” by Ted Chiang, whose computer science degree from Brown University is definitely evident throughout the movie’s timeline, if there even is one. Much of what you see on the screen is nonlinear, meaning that the timeline is not always moving forward, so sometimes you can see things that took place in other moments of Banks’s life.

If you liked Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” then you’ll love “Arrival.” What director Denis Villeneuve does is incorporate time as a very important element, much like Nolan does in his film. In “Arrival,” especially toward the end of the film, time is all that matters. It drives the plot and keeps viewers hooked, which is interesting because it seems like a very boring subject unless you’re an horologist. But this topic forces you to think about what could happen and what happened in the past. Banks continues to have visions of her life, such as moments when she is playing with her daughter and questions about her work as a linguist. These are reoccuring throughout the action and when they do pop up, you’re not sure what’s real and what’s fake and you’re not sure what’s past and what’s present. This is clever on the part of the filmmakers, because it’s actively engaging. If you don’t stay with the story as it plays out on the cinema screen, you’ll be utterly lost and have no idea what happened by the time the credits roll.

In all of the popular films from this year, never before has the skill of a sound editor and sound mixer been so prominent. Every so often you’ll get bits of sound that introduces the next scene, which is confusing at first, but makes sense when everything plays out. “Arrival” also has the skills of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson who was nominated for an academy award for Best Original Score for “The Theory of Everything” and Villeneuve’s “Sicario.” He is also currently working on the score for the “Blade Runner” sequel “Blade Runner 2049” which will debut in October 2017.

“Arrival” is not a normal blockbuster science fiction film. What it does is couple a lesson in language with the creativity of big-time filmmaking. It’s thrilling and mind-boggling until the very end, so don’t look away while watching it. It will leave you wanting more.

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