Release Date(s)2016 (February 14, 2017)
Studio(s)Lava Bear/21 Laps/FilmNation (Paramount)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
Based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival opens with a series of memories, a young girl’s life, as seen from start to finish. Then we meet Louise (Amy Adams), the woman whose memories we’ve just seen. She’s teaching a university language class when the extraordinary happens; news breaks of the landing of alien spacecraft all around the world. Soon, a U.S. Army Colonel (Forest Whitaker) arrives to solicit Louise’s help in communicating with the aliens. She’s flown to a landing site in Montana, along with a Los Alamos physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), and together they begin the lengthy process of attempting to understand the aliens and discover their purpose for visiting Earth.
As a cinematic experience, Arrival is interesting on a number of levels. Villeneuve’s direction is a study in restrained simplicity. He creates a visceral sense of foreboding in the film’s opening scenes, which is punctuated by the inevitable shock of first contact. The aliens, when we finally see them, are truly alien, not to mention unique and plausible, as are their ship and language. Propelled by Eric Heisserer’s smart screenplay, the initial tone of unease gives way to a kind of methodical scientific-linguistic procedural story, as Louise and Ian attempt to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding the aliens and find a common frame of reference with them. The film’s production design, sound mix, and score are all minimalist and grounded in realism, which embeds Louise and Ian firmly within a nervous bubble of curiosity and isolation. This, in turn, contrasts perfectly against the ticking-clock tension building around them, as the outside world slow burns toward war due to widespread fear and paranoia. Best of all, the film is anchored by the fine performances of its three leads, who each create characters that are completely believable and relatable.
If the film has a weakness, it’s that the subplot involving Louise’s memories doesn’t quite weave into the main plot as seamlessly as the filmmakers intend. To the extent there are meant to be surprises, they’re perhaps telegraphed a bit too early. Still, the film’s imagery is so striking, and its intellectual content so rich and satisfying, that it almost doesn’t matter. Make no mistake: This is a truly high-concept science fiction film of a type we seldom see anymore and it’s clear the material is right in Villeneuve’s strike zone. It’s no wonder then that he’s currently helming the sequel to Blade Runner and has also been tapped to direct a big screen reboot of Frank Herbert’s Dune. (Among his previous works, you’ll find such interesting films as Sicario and Prisoners.) Villeneuve is one of the few directors working in Hollywood today that might actually be up to such lofty challenges.
Arrival was shot on ARRIRAW format with an open gate (3414 x 2198 active pixels – 3.5K) by cinematographer Bradford Young, using ARRI Alexa XT cameras. The image was then cropped to achieve the 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio and the film was finished as a 2K DI. That is essentially what’s presented here, upsampled for Paramount’s 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release and given an HDR color timing pass. Note that this is the same theatrical cut seen in theaters. (The so-called “extended edition” recently presented theaters is simply the theatrical cut shown with a behind-the-scenes featurette at the end.) In terms of image quality, this is a very dark and gray looking film, with diffuse lighting of the type you’d experience on a gloomy and overcast afternoon. By intent, it’s been lit with mostly natural light sources and then almost like black and white film, where characters are often backlit or have their faces in shadow. On top of this, the differences in color timing choices between the Blu-ray and 4K are striking – the 4K presentation has been pushed even darker. I’ve had the chance to speak with sources involved in mastering and quality control at Paramount about this transfer, and my suspicion that these were deliberate creative choices made by the filmmakers, and not a technical error, was confirmed.
One of the reasons that the video quality of 4K Ultra HD discs is seen as “all over the map” by enthusiasts, is that the filmmakers themselves – the directors and cinematographers – are really just now beginning to experiment with the potential of High Dynamic Range. It’s very new to them, and there is not yet a standard or agreed upon approach for using it creatively. The color spaces for theater (DCI-P3), Blu-ray (Rec.709), and 4K (Rec.2020, but there’s HDR-10, Dolby Vision, etc) are all different. The HDR color timing passes for 4K releases have to this point typically been done last, after the film has been released into theaters, and the filmmakers are sometimes making different choices with them than they did theatrically or on Blu-ray. Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant (available on BD and 4K UHD from Fox – see our review) is a perfect example of this – the film’s cinematographer made very different color timing choices, with the director’s blessing, for HDR than he did for theatrical and Blu-ray. In some cases, the filmmakers are choosing to be very aggressive with HDR, as were George Miller and John Seale with Mad Max: Fury Road. In other cases, the filmmakers are choosing not to be aggressive with HDR at all, as is the case with Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (available on 4K UHD from Warner).
For the 4K presentation of Arrival, Villeneuve and Young have chosen to employ HDR in a way that’s a little more unconventional, not just to enhance the brightest areas of the image, but the darkest ones as well. This makes sense when you consider the visual metaphor of the film, which is the idea of humanity emerging from darkness into the light of greater awareness about the universe, and also Louise emerging from the grief of her own memories. The most obvious depiction of this idea occurs when Louise, Ian, Weber, and their team are walking down the long dark antechamber of the alien spacecraft toward the main room, with its bright translucent wall. The result of Villeneuve and Young’s choices is that shadows throughout the film are deeper on the 4K, with stronger contrasts. All of the fine shadow detail is still there in the image, but not every 4K display (or especially 4K-compatible projector) can render the full HDR-10 color space completely. So if you’re watching this disc on a projector, you’re not going to see all of that detail. The HDR doesn’t have the kind of pop here that you see on some other 4K titles... except when it does (such as the aforementioned wall inside the spacecraft), in which case the effect is even more dramatic. Examples of scenes that are darker early on include the moment Weber first visits Louise in her office, and the scene when Weber, Louise, and Ian are talking inside the helicopter on their way to the landing site. On both the 4K and Blu-ray presentations, the film’s color palette is stylistically limited, but thanks to the broader dynamic range on the 4K, that limited palette really opens up with richer and more nuanced hues. Overall image detail is very good on the 4K, but it’s quite good on the Blu-ray too, and the darker timing of the 4K can make the differences more subtle than expected. The improvement in fine detail does make itself apparent in the rare brighter scenes, however, and especially in the subtle texturing within the alien spacecraft. Ultimately, I suspect that the filmmakers’ HDR color timing choices here will be controversial with some enthusiasts, but they are creative choices. It’s not an error.
The audio is presented on Ultra HD in English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format, with additional audio options including French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and English Descriptive Audio (subtitles are included in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish). Arrival features a richly ambient mix of organic sound textures, in which almost nothing has been synthesized that wasn’t first recorded from a real world source, as well as a uniquely minimalist score, by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, that blends human choral sounds and earthy percussion in layer upon layer of repeating rhythmic audio loops. The result is a sonic tour-de-force that’s both moody and inquisitive, Earthly and utterly alien, at all times suffused with tense, almost reverent tones. The forward portion of the soundstage is medium-wide, with smooth panning all around, and plenty of atmospheric fill from the surrounds. LFE reinforcement never calls attention to itself but provides a weighty and solid foundation for the mix. Clarity and staging are both excellent, and the use of re-recording techniques is particularly appreciated – often times characters are speaking to each other through microphones and earpieces, and their dialogue has been passed through the actual devices used and re-recorded to achieve a sound quality that feels exactly right for the moment. It’s a shame that there’s no DTS:X or Dolby Atmos mix here, because the height channels could be employed to great effect, especially in scenes aboard or around the alien ship. However, I’m told that Paramount did offer the filmmakers the option to do an object-based audio mix for this disc and they declined. Again, not every filmmaker is embracing the latest tools in the same way or to the same extent. Still, the DTS-HD is a fine and unique sound mix that enhances the imagery perfectly.
The 4K package includes a bonus Blu-ray Disc that features the same version of the film in 1080p HD. It also adds a series of documentary featurettes, also presented in 1080p HD. They include...
- Xenolinquistics: Understanding Arrival (30:03)
- Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design (13:59)
- Eternal Recurrence: The Score (11:24)
- Nonlinear Thinking: The Editing Process (11:20)
- Principles of Time, Memory & Language (15:24)
This content amounts to about 80 behind-the-scenes minutes in total, all of it quite terrific. The director, the original novelist, the screenwriter, the producer, composer, and editor, even computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, all go into great detail on the specific conceptual choices they made to enhance the visuals and the narrative, and good screen time is given of the key ideas presented in the film. There’s especially interesting discussion of the aliens, their language, and the process by which scientists might realistically attempt to understand such things. Really, the only complaint is that one wishes there was more of this material – trailers, deleted scenes, an artwork gallery, perhaps an audio commentary. That’s splitting hairs though, because the quality of what you do get is exceptional. Every minute is fascinating and worth watching. Of course, you also get a Digital HD code on a paper slip in the packaging.
Arrival is a terrific piece of sci-fi filmmaking that deserves to be ranked among the best examples of the genre. It’s not perfect, but it manages to get so much right – including its strong cast and female lead, thoughtful concepts, and a surprisingly fresh sense of style – that the film is sure to only appreciate with time. It’s highly recommended, and is certainly worth experiencing on UHD, though keep in mind that you may wish to look elsewhere for HDR demo material if you find the filmmakers’ choices in that regard here less than agreeable.
- Bill Hunt