Although one can argue that the advancement of modern CGI and film technology in general has enabled sci-fi film creators to bring to life their ideas much more effectively than ever before, one can also point out that the same advancements have made the industry over-reliant on these mechanisms. It’s easy to fall into the alluring trap of an excessive dependence on the visual aspect of a sci-fi film, which frequently leads to sci-fi romps that are more style than substance.

I’m happy to however report that Arrival masterfully sidesteps this trap, treating its audience to a refreshingly surprising sci-fi adventure that is equal parts thrilling and thought provoking. But please don’t misconstrue this observation as inferring that Arrival isn’t also a great looking sci-fi film: Arrival is exceptionally polished and although its CGI is not as indulgent as what we have come to expect from the genre, the film uses just the right sprinkle of CGI trickery needed to draw you into its enticingly strange, but at the same time, deliberately familiar world.

"...the film uses just the right sprinkle of CGI trickery needed to draw you into its enticingly strange, but at the same time, deliberately familiar world."

If there’s one standout quality of this film that differentiates it from the rest of its genre then it has to be its distinctly measured pace. In Arrival, humankind decides to take a refreshingly diplomatic approach to the potential alien threat, rather opting to try and understand the reason behind the alien race’s arrival before deciding on appropriate action.  Whilst this in itself might not sound like the most exciting cinematic plot for an alien invasion movie, it comes over as a much more plausible real world 2016 eventuality, resulting in a film that feels even more realistic and therefore, also involving.

Teaching someone else a new language, whilst simultaneously learning a new one yourself, is definitely PhD level affairs.
The film’s protagonist is also not your typical gun-blazing patriot who enjoys spewing out cheesy action lines before dishing out a can of proverbial whoop-ass on the alien race. Enter Dr Louise Banks, an accomplished and determined linguistics professor who specialises in translation work, tasked to lead a team aiming to decipher the alien race’s highly advanced language system. Amy Adams is simply put, amazing in this role and I’m confident in declaring it as one of her most commanding on-screen performances to date. Dr Banks is as professional and contained as one would expect a high-profile academic to be, but as the film progresses, she finds it harder and harder to hide the cracks in her elaborately woven emotional armour. Adams does a fantastic job at transitioning between her character’s various emotional states, the result of a complex combination of her troubled past, the immense pressure of her present situation and even, her future to be. The last time I recall a sci-fi film taking this much care in the development of its lead was back in 1997, with Jodie Foster in Contact.

Adams also becomes the main vehicle for how director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) develops the film’s most enthralling and thought provoking themes. Although there are potentially endless thematic layers to Arrival (such as the intricacies of global politics, the fragility of human connections etc.) that one can delve into here, I myself was most intrigued by the film’s commentary on the role that language plays in shaping the reality of one’s world. The film’s argument for the benefits of learning a new language was so poignant to me, that it has actually motivated me to take up another language in the near future. I mention this to illustrate how involving and satisfying Arrival as a film experience was for me. There definitely hasn’t been another film this year that has left me with this much to think about and this is why I’m happy to announce it as my favourite film of 2016.

If you make the right choice (that is, to go and see this film of course), you’ll be treated to a refreshingly intelligent, but also non-pretentious sci-fi masterpiece that forces its audience to readjust their assumptions of what a sci-fi film should and shouldn’t be. And if you’re lucky, Arrival might even treat you to an experience that leads to a shift in the way you see the world. Either way, it’s easily one of the best ways to spend 2 hours this year.   

Highlight: The film's climactic ending is highly satisfying and expertly brings this great film full circle. 


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