Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
It’s no secret that Arrival was my number one film of 2016. The question is would it hold up on a third viewing and on a TV. The answer is a big yes. This movie has a reveal that changes the viewing experience for sure, but unlike something like the Sixth sense it’s not twist, it’s a game changer.
What just happened? That’s the question I asked myself stepping out of the theater after viewing Arrival, the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, director of the amazing Prisoners and really solid Sicario. This isn’t your kids’ sci-fi film. Arrival is complex, dramatic, brilliant, intellectual, and wholly unique. Don’t plan to check text messages during this one or you’ll be lost; it requires undivided attention and rewards you for the effort.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, one the United States’ foremost linguists. She is teaching at a university when one twelve mysterious egg shaped ships arrive. They hover at various, seemingly random points around the world. The first fresh element of this story is that our main characters are representing us in the film; they aren’t scared as much as they are fascinated and excited. It’s refreshing to see characters excited at the possibility of meeting new life from a far away planet. I don’t know if we’ve had characters at this level since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Back on topic now. So, Louise is brought in to help find a way to communicate with the aliens along with scientist Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner.
If you’ve seen Prisoners or Sicario you know what to expect from this director and he does not disappoint.
It takes real guts to let your story breathe the way arrival breathes. The film doesn’t lead you to an emotional response with sappy music. Instead there are long stints of silence or ambient noise that allow the story and more importantly the actor on screen to lead you through the events on screen emotionally and intellectually. It’s brilliant storytelling that expects audience members to their part in the experience rather than just plop everything down on a silver platter for the feast. It’s a truly rewarding viewing experience. Now there is a soundtrack, it’s beautifully subtle and effective when it’s needed and it quietly adds another layer to the storytelling that you may not get on your first viewing.
The cast is good but Amy Adams blazingly outshines everyone. The actress delivers quite possibly her best theatrical performance to date. Her line delivery is real, it’s layered without melodrama and her simple facial expressions and reactions are even better. Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner are both good but they just don’t have as much to do as Adams. The cinematographer delivers some truly stunning moments and the editing develops a precise and dramatic pace that allows the story to truly unfold rather than slap the audience across the face.
If there’s really something to complain about it might be that the linguistic breakthrough is glossed over just a little. We are told by Louise how it works but seeing her make the breakthrough is a fleeting scene. This is a minor complaint for a film that works so hard to keep the intellectual bar high and the action minimal and in places that serves the plot only. Some fans have touted Arrival as not only the best movie of the year but possibly the best science fiction film of the 2000’s. While I don’t know that I agree with that hyperbole I could easily be swayed I think. Arrival is just literally that good. This is not a space opera with lasers and space battles. Arrival is as realistic and smart as you could possibly make aliens arriving on Earth, and it’s truly brilliant.
Here is where the 4K experience makes a massive difference. Arrival is a dark, almost bleak movie and the strength of the 4K platform brings it to life at home, especially with the help of HDR. The film in theaters was a hazy dim experience intended to create a dreamlike effect and make the pops of color more vivid and more important. That experience is perfectly replicated on the 4K disc. You see the power of the HDR wide color gamut when those pops of color appear, or when there’s a transition to a wildly different color pallet and level of contrast. the disc handles it beautifully. Now, the purposefully muddy look of the film softens blacks and makes a bit of a mess of shadows. While this look may have been by design it does keep this disc from being a demo disc for sure. Also, why are we getting an up-convert from a 2k master? This movie should have been mastered in 4kK from the beginning. All that said, the film looks nearly identical to the theatrical experience.
This Dolby 7.1 mix is stunning in its subtly. You won’t here a lot in the way of sounds whizzing across the sound stage from left to right or front to back. What you will experience are subtle layers of ambient sound and minimal score that all works together in harmony to make you feel like you are always in the center of the film, without ever banging you over the head with that fact. All communications through devices were actually recorded through those devices, which makes them feel real rather than processed. It’s all done so well you may not even be able to pinpoint why it’s working when it really is. There’s some great commentary in the bonus features about the audio, and the attention is warranted.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The slim standard black 4K case features the 4K disc, a regular blu-ray, and a digital copy. The art features a floating head design that just doesn’t do justice to this amazing film. Hopefully there will be a better edition with better packaging down the line.
Just when you thought you didn’t need that annoying standard blu-ray disc in the set guess what? The vast majority of the bonus features are on that disc. There are five featurettes that total nearly an hour and a half of supplemental content. While these featurettes are produced in a very marketing-esque way they actually feature a lot of fantastic behind the scenes information. A lot of attention is given to the editing, the score, and the sound design of the film and rightfully so. These elements of the production take the film to a new level of story telling not common in American cinema. We would have been better served had the featurettes been produced as a single long form documentary minus the EPK vibe, but overall there’s a ton of important information to peruse.
Arrival is a truly unique and powerful viewing experience that holds up well to multiple viewings due to amazing acting from the entire cast, precise direction, and powerful visuals, soundscapes, and score. This is a near perfect film on a great, but not perfect 4K package. We need better packaging, a director commentary, and a 4K master.