Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) Movie Review



Movie Review: Arrival
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer
Cinematography by Bradford Young
Edited by Bradford Young
Creature Designer Carlos Huante

Censor Certificate: U/A & Runtime: 116 Minutes

You can understand communication and still end up single

No matter how big our life stories are, how crucial we may feel, we are all humans. Bounded by love, loss, grief, and apropos about everything around that answers: who are we as humanity? How can we understand the nature, the motivations, the purpose of other forms of life, if we don’t even understand ourselves as a whole as species? And I exactly don’t know what exactly to say about this superb piece of art, but all I can say is this movie is magnificent thought provoking film that resonates one question in the end: who are we and why do we think so much about ourselves? Aren’t we part of one tiny particle in this vast universe of possibilities?

Inspired by Carl Sagan’s work on the Voyager’s communication protocols, the film focuses on the method of communicating with real alien species. Director Denis Villeneuve inspired by Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (1998) and took the support of scientists to give the film a correct and scientific vocabulary. Arrival deals with humanity’s response to 12 alien vessels hovering in 12 spots on Earth, still and unnervingly passive. The US Army calls on Louise (Amy Adams), a linguistic expert; another piece of encouraging evidence that Hollywood is interested in painting minds into heroes rather than brutal strongmen. The film essentially follows Louise as she struggles to comprehend the alien’s language; subverting the combative concerns of armies both intersectional and domestic, championing communication and co-operation as better alternatives. In her attempts to communicate with the aliens often elucidate some painful echoes of her past. This emotion is ultimately not a weakness but a unique strength as the film often concerns itself with how we react to fear, tragedy and the preponderant importance of rising to the occasion. Its about how Louis feels about greater good and how Hannah’s arrival is more important than her departure is what defines arrival.

Language is corner stone of culture

Robert Drew’s Who’s Out There? (1973) documentary had many scientists discuss about possibilities of alien civilizations in the universe. Narrated by Orson Wells, it addresses several aspects of this hypothesis, like building blocks present in the universe and communication challenges in the event of an encounter with extra-terrestrials. It’s probably the first scientifically credible doc in association top scientists and NASA.

Arrival follows the same footsteps of who’s out there? with very elements, and has parallels between Slaughterhouse Five (1969) – Time Quake (1997) The fear from the unknown and the violence that it results, so near to most of the alien invasion films (Like, The Day Earth the Stood Still), is actually the trigger push scientists into finding a form of communication with the squid like aliens writing with ink. With every film, Denis Villeneuve seems to diagnose the world as having a terminal case of hyper-masculinity. He sees the world as being caged by men’s worst impulses, trapped in an endless cycle of struggle for male dominance, while woman have the intuition, vision and grace necessary to see other ways to doing things. After Prisoners, Sicario, now Arrival…


Taking this 38 page sci-fi short storyline as a right opportunity director Denis Villeneuve tried to explore scientific and philosophical themes with the help of writer Eric Heisserer.

Eternalism (Endless) a philosophy of time suggesting all the past – present – future moments are equally real, there is nothing special about present. (Which was later opposed by Presentism, which stated that only the present is real, that’s why we exist now.) . In Arrival, our language typically lead to their speakers becoming present-ists. We tend to think past (Stone Age)-present (changes takes place)-future (which is always open) as being separate state categories in time with a unique symmetry. But Heptapod demands a nonlinear view of time, where all moments exists equally, and therefore death wouldn’t be a final thing. Abbot isn’t really dead, since he experiences time nonlinearly. Death would just appear to be another state of being for them, a process they can go in and out of. Costello can simply go back and talk to Abbott. (The same reason why Louise was able to ‘Smile’ even though she knew her marriage would break and her daughter would die. From her perspective, she’s experiencing their love forever-no matter where she or he is in the time line.)

Apart from eternalism, it’s majorly supported by Empirical Findings, like consequences of the theory of special relativity. There is no absolute reference frame nor absolute present moment. Two aliens or two observers may disagree about what’s present-past-future, given their relative state of motion, yet all will agree on the ordering of events. (A can never come after event B, but it can be simultaneous with B).

Linguistic Relativity (aka. The Sapir – Whorf Hypothesis) is epitome in linguistics and cognitive science, suggesting that a learned language will physically alter the speakers brain in such a way that the specific structure of the language will bring about particular changes in cognition and how one views the world.

For aliens language is performative than communicative. The Heptapods are prescient and therefore have knowledge of events before they happen (from linear human perspective of time). So rather than trying to communicate with humans aliens uses languages as a source of action for future. They share it with Louise the gift so that things move according to their plan. However, thing are moving according to universe’s plan, all creature are merely conscious observers, following their story and act accordingly. Costello could not avoid his death process, nor could Lousie avoid her husbands divorce nor death of her daughter.

Determinism (the free will). In this nonlinear timeline everything being determined, free will describes actions that are consistent without beliefs and desires. To make a choice, is for an agent to act in accordance with their beliefs and desires, even if those beliefs are desires are ultimately determined. Even though Louise knowns what will happen, she still makes choices, given that what she does is what she wants to do.

In Villeneuve’s style, this alien thriller becomes far slower, quieter and more deeply felt than we normally see from big budget sci-fi films. The scale of the problems facing the characters is global, but the tension from scene to scene is insinuate, immediate and powerful. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay further adds the depth & tension to the film. The moments of Adam’s character and her conversation with aliens, Hannah and Ian are smartly penned. Like: Creates Tension: Hovering in 12 different spots around the world forces each nation to hope that the other nation doesn’t go berserk and ruin others work – Sapir Whorf Hypothesis: We perceive things differently depending on language we know and culture from its spoken (alien language correlates with time) – Bird Cage symbolism: The bird cage that present during interviews is a symbolic representation of Louise (bird) breaking out of the cage in order make free choices and not follow the rules of govt, – The Tentacle Reference: The isstar shaped tentacles of aliens is a symbol of fertility, love, war and power. – Ouroboros Symbolism: (a snake eating it self represents Infinity) and symbol for Time Paradox. Time is not transcended through destroying time it is understood through the comprehension of its cyclical nature rather than the linear. (The male Renner represents mind, science, father, Compassion, consciousness and the female Louis represents the physical expression material world- mother earth . coming together these two forces is what allows you to experience time aka. Ouroboros cycle of creation.) – Time Paradox: As time becomes nonlinear for Louise, she says the words to the Chinese military guy in the past, at the same time she’s hearing what she said in the future, as he’s telling her. He’d have wondered how she could possibly have known what she said (and how she got his number.) By the time Shang approaches Louise, the reality of the alien’s time-bending language becomes universal. He realized she got his information from the future. So he reasoned he had to approach her some day and give her the information. He went to the gala for just that purpose. That’s why Chinese general in the gala meet says to Louise, “”I’m not sure I understand how your mind works but I’m pretty sure I have to give you my personal phone number and tell you how to convince me in the past to step back from the brink.””- Flatland Hypothesis : Extrapolating this concept to our world as Flatland. The aliens didn’t visit us in our time, they didn’t time travel, they visited while considering themselves without time, when aliens visit flatland aka. Earth they think aliens are teleported into their dimension, when really they didn’t travel anywhere. The ships always hover because its anchored outside our space 7 time continuum, that puts aliens in what we could call the 5th dimension. That’s why ships sort of get dissolved out of sight. They were drifting out of our time (it wasn’t teleportation or instant acceleration to light speed). No emission to communicate: The aliens observes the language as performative, like reciting vows at wedding. We all know the words, but we have to say them, because its important to understand. To Heptapods, the world is a stage (literally!) and each character knowingly plays their part in a larger story.


Coming to other technical aspects, Cinematography by Bradford Young is solid. The way he uses different colour palette on the flash backs. It went from avery grey world to very orange and vibrant by the end is brilliant add on. With each shot he captures the beauty of the landscape and also adds to the mystery to the aliens. Similarly, the way Brandford focuses on eye opening shots (even spaceships are in concave retina shaped) to objectify to the point to “Open Your Eyes” is superb thought. Musician Johann Johannsson’s score feels haunting at times and then incredibly emotional, evocative of so many other sci-fi scores and yet in its dauntingness your ears stand before its complete prisons almost violated by some inbound tension or emotion that threatens never to fear you. Arrivals lacks some sort of special glow to make it standout amongst every other scifi flick out there. Nevertheless and given the budget constraints of the film, the whole cinematic experience seldom feels threatened by this. Creature designer Carlos Huante has a done a good job in bringing the mystery angle to the Heptapods.

In performance section, Amy Adams delivers an striking performance, balancing a serious tone when she needs it and a loving, caring one at other times. We all get to see how passionate she can get for a character and I wish this movie will get her an Oscar nomination. Jeremy Renner also gives us a fine performance. He’s funny and interesting at times. Forest Whitaker too is a good addition as a colonel. He looked authoritative initially and then his empathetic gestures for Louise are sincere.

All in all, Arrival is a mid budget scifi film targeted at mature cinephiles. Its that palindrome effect that will begin and end with a lot to think about. From having us thinking about our capability to communicate with others (can we establish communication with heptapods) all the way to having us think about humanity (can we establish connection with ourselves for greater good?). It doesn’t pander and it doesn’t dumb down anything, more than it needs to be. This is the type of filmmaking that’s largely lost in today’s commercial superhero culture. A good double feature would be Contact (1997). A Must Watch.

Do You Know:

The sentence Amy Adams said to change General Shang’s mind was “War does not make winners, only Widows.” (Edited from the film)

The founder of Wolfram Alpha was brought onto project to help develop the visual language. His son wrote a program that would decode the individual words in each logogram. The effects on the screen when the language is analysed is a practical effect (Said by the screenwriter)

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