When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team - led by expert linguist Louise Banks - is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers - and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.
It's the most average morning of your life. You're off to school or work or running errands. Coffee in hand, thinking about the grocery list or worrying about that bill you need to pay. Then it happens. The whole world changes in an instant. Word spreads on social media first, a viral explosion of information and rumors. Maybe it's all a hoax, you think (you hope), before confirmation comes...
An alien spacecraft is hovering over a Montana field... With eleven more in other places across the world.
School is canceled. Groceries stores pillaged. And fighter jets scream across the horizon.
Naturally, the government -- a collection of military, intelligence, and scientific personnel -- investigates the craft, even managing to make first contact long enough to realize these aliens -- dubbed heptapods for their squid-like appearance -- don't communicate in any languages we understand. Stumped, the military turns to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to translate the heptapods' language, and physicist Ian Donnely (Jeremy Renner), to advise on the important questions once communication is established.
Louise's impossible task, however, is not simply to translate, but also to teach the heptapods the basics of our language, including vital cultural and linguistic nuances, while simultaneously deciphering the circular hieroglyphs of the heptapods' written language...
And she has to do all of this before our world's paranoid hawks push humanity over the cliff of interstellar warfare.
Denis Villeneuve ('Sicario', 'Prisoners') is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. Not only does he, along with his collaborators, have an incredible sense of tone and scale and scope, but he has a knack for selecting already-excellent screenplays and improving them throughout the development, production, and post-production processes. I am simply in awe of the work he makes (and pulls out of others) and can't wait to see what he does next (he's finishing up the 'Bladerunner' sequel and is attached to direct a new adaptation of 'Dune'). But let's go back a little further.
'Arrival' began its journey to the big screen as a short story entitled 'Story of Your Life', written by Ted Chiang. Enter screenwriter Eric Heisserer who, after years of trying to get producers interested in the project, found a home for it at Shawn Levy's 21 Laps Entertainment. They were able to secure the adaptation rights by attaching Villeneuve who, at that time, was about to direct 'Prisoners' and, later, only fully committed after Heisserer wrote an amazing script that was lauded on the 2012 Black List. Despite losing studio support, the filmmakers trudged on, attaching elements like Amy Adams, pre-selling the movie at the Cannes Film Festival, and eventually entering production in 2015 for the eventual 2016 release.
It's a journey that took many years, and the results speak for themselves.
On the day 'Arrival' is available to purchase on Ultra HD Blu-ray and Blu-ray, I will have been a father for exactly sixteen months. As a first-time father, 'Arrival' breaks my heart in its first ten minutes before breaking my mind for the rest of its running tune, weaving multiple elements into a riveting conclusion that resonates wonderfully. In short, it's the most emotional movie-going experience I've had years, and among the most human cinema experiences I've had in my lifetime.
The movie asks philosophical, thematic questions about human nature and threads them delicately into a thrilling story about the nature of language and the importance of communication. At the same time, 'Arrival' builds suspense not with gunfights and destroyed moments, but on whether or not humanity has the patience and courage to resist our more destructive instincts.
Will our own fear destroy us?
It's a fascinating experiment, cinematically, especially when you consider the sheer volume of exposition dancing around complicated scientific and linguistic concepts. Ultimately, 'Arrival' succeeds because it is so singularly focused in the hearts of its main characters. We are curious about what Louise and Ian want to learn. We side with them as hostile agents threaten to derail their work. And we hope with them as they struggle to make difficult choices. It's a movie that makes its complexity, of concept and structure and character journey, feel simple and approachable and, yes, emotional.
We've all seen movies where mankind reacts to extraterrestrial first contact. It's a sci-fi trope and concept that speaks to our cultural paranoias. Like all the best science fiction, 'Arrival' transcends its own genre. I could probably write a few thousand more words about how it works on the micro and macro simultaneously and why I felt such an intense connection to it. I don't know if you'll feel the same -- especially after the hype driven by enthusiastic fans like me and the film's Oscar campaign -- but I implore everyone to give this one a shot while knowing as little about it as possible.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
'Arrival' debuts on Ultra HD Blu-ray as part of a two-disc Ultra HD Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital HD combo pack. The Digital HD redemption code may not be valid after February 14, 2019 and works with iTunes OR UltraViolet partners like VUDU (where there is no UHD version currently available). There are no pre-menu trailers on either physical disc.
[NOTE: for this review, I'm testing out an Epson Pro Cinema 6040UB Projector, which uses pixel-shifting technology to achieve a 3840 x 2160 resolution for UHD and 1080p sources. The 6040UB is also HDCP 2.2 compliant, HDR10 compatible, and capable of reproducing 100% of the DCI P3 color space, which is currently used in professional cinemas and for all currently-available UHD Blu-rays.]
When I saw 'Arrival' theatrically, I was mid-review on the excellent LG E6 OLED UHD TV and coming off an afternoon spent in my local Dolby Cinema. It goes without saying that the black levels, color qualities, and contrast capabilities on both are divine. Stepping into a conventional digital cinema for 'Arrival', I was met with muddy black levels and poor contrast. At the time, I ascribed my experience to my particular cinema, even snarking about it on Facebook.
Turns out this is exactly how the filmmakers want 'Arrival' to look.
Or at least that's what I'm going to assume because the Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation replicates my theatrical experience almost exactly, especially when considering the wider color gamut available to this particular format.
This Ultra HD Blu-ray is a lot like the Blu-ray. The image looks good and detailed and sharp at times, but there's a hazy aesthetic to the whole picture grounded in muddy contrast and grayed out black-levels. By contrast, comparing 'Arrival' with HDR/WCG to something like 'Prisoners' in SDR/Rec709, 'Prisoners' boasts a much more vibrant design I wish had been applied here. Of course, that's my personal taste. What we have here is what the filmmakers released in cinemas. It's their vision, and it does create a dreamlike and surreal experience that fits the project, tonally, and makes it stand out.
That said, even with HDR10 grading, the film doesn't really pop visually. In fact, I'd say this version comes off darker with less shadow detail than the Blu-ray. Noticeably so. My bet is that we're dealing with a limitation of HDR10's static metadata. That said, getting to see the film in the theatrical color space is dramatic at times, especially anytime you see the vividly orange hazmat suits or a day-lit flashback with Louise's daughter.
At the end of the day, this Ultra HD Blu-ray is never going to be a demo disc -- it's bland at times with grey black levels -- but that's okay. More important to understand is how this disc quite accurately replicates the filmmakers' intent / how the movie looked in commercial cinemas, regardless of how those results land along our numerical scale of what makes for pretty Ultra HD pictures. The overall darkness and loss of shadow detail are a bigger concern; I look forward to revisiting this disc to see how it appears on different display technologies.
'Arrival' boasts the same English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio on both the Ultra HD Blu-ray and the Blu-ray. After 'Sicario', I was eagerly anticipating another Denis Villeneuve film in Dolby Atmos, or a first film in DTS:X, but it seems 'Arrival' was only ever mixed in 7.1.
On the surface, this is a bit of a shame given what we've heard before from this team, and also when factoring how great this track sounds as-is, but I have no complaints here. Technically, it's not the most bombastic, in-your-face surround mix, but the layers of nuanced details are reference quality and audiophile-impressive.
The sound elements themselves -- be they score, effects, or dialogue -- crackle with fidelity and unique tones. I've never quite heard a score like this, and pay special attention to the dialogue spoken into various microphones (it was re-recording using those devices rather than post-processed). All of this design work gives the elements a very textured and dynamic feeling.
Those elements are then panned with precision for a highly immersive audio experience that not only surrounds in native 7.1, but also up-mixes wonderfully in Neural:X or Dolby Surround for full a more hemispherical approach. I was constantly amazed by the ways the filmmakers added a large or small detail to this channel or that. They also modulate the mix's volume levels and aggression (quiet moments following intense noise, etc.) in such away your ears never fatigue like with more conventional blockbusters.
At the end of the day, while I wonder what a native DTS:X or Dolby Atmos mix could have added to the overall experience, 'Arrival' boasts an articulate, reference quality 7.1 mix. Turn this one up to 11.
As far as I can tell -- I don't have the DVD -- 'Arrival' bonus content is only available as an HD Exclusive, either via the Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray combo packs or OTT digital purchases from services like iTunes
'Arrival' is an emotional movie-going experience built on the foundation of a thematically-haunting short story and an exceptionally tight screenplay. Director Denis Villeneuve and team have made an incredible film that is smart and tense and human.
On Ultra HD Blu-ray,' Arrival' combines bold visuals with graying black levels that's enhanced by the wider color gamut, but comes with a slightly darker HDR grade compared to the SDR Blu-ray. It features the same, excellent 7.1 sound mix as the Blu-ray, which is also included in this set and home to over 80 minutes of bonus materials. It's not the best disc to convince people of UHD's superiority over HD, but the wider color gamut makes the UHD more representative of the original theatrical experience, though it is a bit darker. In other words, the UHD BD is probably better, but not incredibly so.
If you own, or are planning to upgrade to, a 4K display, this Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack comes Highly Recommended because the movie is excellent and you have the option to play either disc format. If you're looking to save a few bucks, the Blu-ray is plenty good for a title with this visual aesthetic.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.