Arrival from director French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is the grand tradition of first contact films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Contact. What Villeneuve’s film has in common with those previous efforts is it takes a very cerebral tack that refrains from the big, shoot ‘em up alien sci-fi visual effects of movies like Independence Day, for example.
The world is sent scrambling when numerous monoliths land over several cities on each continent brining alien visitors, Heptapods. What do they want and why are they here? Those are the questions that need answering when linguist Lousie Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are approached by the U.S. military’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). The pair must team up to quickly learn the alien race’s language, teach them our own, and find out what they want.
Every 18 hours, the aliens open a door on their monolithic spacecraft and allow the military scientists to enter into a darkened tunnel that appears to have some form of artificial gravity and reconditioned atmosphere appropriate for humans. There, the scientists, including Louise and Ian, can meet with and observe the Heptapods, two of which appear on the opposite side of what appears to be a glass window. Inside they float around in a smoke-filled atmosphere. When Louise finally gets them to communicate, they shoot out what looks like squid ink that forms geometrical patterns that look almost like an ouroboros. After months of deciphering the strange symbols that the Heptapods use to communicate, Louise determines them to be part of a non-linear pattern of communication wherein whole thoughts, expressions, and sentences can be contained in one pattern. Meanwhile, Louise begins to have strange visions of a life with a young girl, possibly a daughter that she doesn’t recognize, these are shown in flashbacks or possibly flashforwards, we’re never sure when these experiences are taking place.
Finally, under pressure from Colonel Weber to find out what the Heptapods want, whether she feels ready to ask or not, the answer Louise and many of the other nations get from the aliens sends the world into a panic. Are they here to destroy us or turn us all against each other? Louise remains adamant that the answer could have been misinterpreted because humans still do not understand enough about the Heptapod language. She begins to formulate a theory about the alien language and people’s perception of the world based around what language they speak that could be the key to solving the enigma of the alien race and stemming what could be a global catastrophe.
Using both the unsettling, ambient score from the brilliant composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose score also helped to set the mood in the sleeper hit Sicario, and the seamless non-linear editing techniques of Joe Walker this often quiet film slowly builds from a standard slow-burning first contact thriller to a non-linear study of time, space, and linguistic theory. Villeneuve’s thoughtful direction never allows Arrival’s slow pace to lose our attention, however. We are involved in the outcome from beginning to end.
Despite the lack of the outwardly grandiose sci-fi themes, in many ways Arrival is a return to the science fiction traditions of old. There are no shiny things, explosions and space battles, but philosophical questions about perception, humanity as the singular, global destruction, hubris, the inability to communicate with our perceived enemies, what shapes our worldviews. These have been the core of science fiction almost since the beginning of the genre. And, of course, confronting an alien species has always seemed to be one of the favored catalysts for the story to hold up a mirror to ourselves.
Arrival has garnered 8 Academy Award Nominations including Best Picture and is based on the story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
(Editor’s Note: For a different take on this film read the theatrical review of Arrival by our own Lawrence Devoe)
Arrival was shot on Arri Alexa XT M and Arri Alexa XT Plus cameras at 2.8K resolution and a 2K DI (Digital Intermediate) was used in the processing stage. The 4K Ultra HD disc is therefore upscaled to 4K resolution and offered in a 2160p HEVC HDR encodement. Given the very muted and often dark look of Arrival, what the HDR does here is provide very extended shadow detail more than very strong ‘pop’ in the brighter part of the spectrum. Things like lamplight, headlights and flashing emergency vehicle lights do still have strong natural brightness that stands out in the dark, night-time scenes daylight, while hardly looking ‘natural’ given the artistic intent of the imagery, still has very color good detail. The encodement is crisp and clean, and certainly without major flaws. The muted palette sometimes takes away from its three-dimensionality, however.
Surprisingly we don’t get one of the newer “object-oriented” audio formats Dolby Atmos or DTS:X on this release, we do get, however, a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that is more than sufficient at conveying the atmospheric and ambient, almost minimalistic score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario), the half growl, half elephant trumpet of the aliens. This is a film that has a lot of dialogue and long silences, and the dynamics of the track are handled marvelously, from the quietest of the quiet to the most bone-chillingly loud. The surround and back channels are more ambient than they are filled with solidly discrete sounds, but this works for this mix. The low-end is more extended than one at first thinks, mostly from the score and the alien sound effects.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of on-disc extras for this one, but what is offered provides a lot of thoughtful discussion on the science behind Arrival and the filmmaking process. They are all worth viewing and the titles are self-explanatory. See below.
- Digital HD UltraViolet + iTunes Digital HD Digital Copy
- Standard Blu-ray with main feature and HD extras
- Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:30:03)
- Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:13:59)
- Eternal Recurrence: The Score (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:11:24)
- Nonlinear Thinking: The Editing Process (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:11:20)
- Principles of Time, Memory, & Language (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:11:24)
The Final Assessment
Arrival is magnificent piece of thoughtful sci-fi that is visually and aurally stimulating without pandering to the popcorn crowd. It is arguably one of the best sci-fi films to come along in the past several years and looks and sounds superb in this 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
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