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Arrival (2016)

Paramount Home Entertainment
4K UHD Released: 2/14/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/1/2017

There are many concepts in the movie world which, at this point, feel as if they've been done to death. One of these is the alien invasion film. This science fiction sub-genre was actually exhausted during its heyday in the 1950s (where the extraterrestrials were ciphers for communists), but it persists to this day. Sure there have been some highlights here and there, and some filmmakers have tried to bring something new to the familiar themes. One such film is Arrival, which steers away from the usual Earth-in-crisis angle and focuses on a more personal story. But, will that be enough to jump-start this tired type of film?

Arrival introduces us to Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who teaches at a university. Her world, and that of everyone else, is turned upside-down when twelve alien space-craft appear over random points all around the globe. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits Louise to help translate the alien language. When she arrives at the landing site in Montana, she is introduced to mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the two venture inside the spacecraft to confront the visitors. Louise discovers that the aliens communicate in a unique symbolic language, and after a time, she begins to uncover the reason for their visit. But, officials in other countries are beginning to see the aliens as a threat. Meanwhile, Louise begins to have strange visions. Are the aliens controlling her mind?

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if someone combined Independence Day and Tree of Life? Yeah, me neither, but that's what we get with Arrival. The film's basic premise deals with the alien's coming to Earth, the scientist's investigation, and the impending danger. But, the real story here are the memories which Louise keeps having about her daughter. These reflections on her life grow stronger and stronger as her work proceeds. Then, the film's big revelation/twist is revealed, and Arrival reveals itself not to be a work of pulpy science-fiction, but a drama which poses a very serious moral question for the viewer to ponder long after the movie has ended.

And there is no doubt that the finale is interesting and will spur discussion. (Is it shocking? Not really. As soon as the final hint was in place, I figured it out. The story simply Tarantinos things, but it makes sense in the end.) The problem with Arrival is not the ending -- it's everything which comes before the ending. Again, remove the artsy flashback sequences, and the bulk of the film is simply way too similar to Independence Day or any modern alien invasion film. Despite the fact that the movie wants us to think that the extraterrestrials aren't the point of the film, we can't ignore the cliched scenes of the TV news footage of the ship's arriving, the scientists debating, and worst of all, the military's rush to judgment that the visitors are a threat and must be destroyed. Does that have to be in every movie? It's obvious that Director Dennis Villeneuve thinks that the scenes in which Louise and Ian communicate with the aliens are filled with a sense of aw and wonder, but they are not. We simply get one scene after another in which some vague looking creatures communicate by throwing coffee table beverage rings on a wall. These scenes get redundant and really go nowhere.

So, what we get with Arrival is a movie which suffers from what I call "The Usual Suspects Syndrome". We clearly remember the impressive ending and forget about all of the mediocre stuff which came before it. I liked the look of the alien spaceships and Adams does a good job of being an anchor for the audience, but otherwise we are treated to a lot of stuff that we've seen before. I appreciate the fact they wanted to make science fiction for adults, but the overly-familiar elements really weight the film down. We've been told that it's not the destination, but the journey. In the case of Arrival, it's the opposite.

Arrival never explains when Louise bought that lakeside house on 4K UHD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a 2160p HD transfer. This is a very dark movie, and it comes across as especially dark on this Disc. (To ensure that it wasn't just an issue with the 4K UHD, I checked out the Blu-ray Disc, and it was dark there as well.) The interior scenes are notably dark, making one wonder exactly what message Villeneuve was trying to send. This dark look leads to some drab colors as well. The exterior shots look somewhat better, but overall, the image does not deliver the sharpness or crispness which UHD is supposed to. The UHD carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. While the visuals here suffer greatly, the audio is impressive. The scenes involving the spaceships moving offer nice surround sound and subwoofer effects. Similarly, the noises made by the aliens bring us nicely subtle bass response. There is also nice use of stereo effects to highlight sounds coming from off-screen.

The Arrival set contains a few extra features, which are found on the included Blu-ray Disc. "Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival" (30 minutes) is a fairly in-depth making of featurette which does justice to the source material by offering comments from short story author Ted Chiang and exploring the challenge of adapting his work. We hear from the creative team who discuss the themes of the movie and the battle making intellectual science fiction. Sylvain Bellemare, Supervising Sound Designer, and David Whitehead & Michelle Child Heptapod Vocals Sound Designers, talk about the aural presentation in the film in "Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design" (14 minutes). "Eternal Recurrence: The Score" (11 minutes) offers comments from Composer Johann Johannson on the film's music. "Nonlinear Thinking: The Editing Process" (11 minutes) takes us into th editing bay to see Editor Joe Walker at work, and he talks about editing the stories in Arrival together. "Principles of Time, Memory & Language" (15 minutes) takes a scientific and philosophical approach to the film's material with a discussion on how time works and is perceived.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long