ARRIVAL is nothing like the way it was marketed (though you can’t blame the marketing guys for trying to get people through the door by making it out to be a disaster movie). Denis Villeneuve’s latest is a razor-sharp conceptual thriller that makes up for a modest budget with a clever use of resources from lighting to sound and pure performance. In short, it’s something special.
Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the American military to find a way to communicate with an alien race, who have just appeared in UFOs stationed around the world. What do the visitors want and how will their arrival change us as a species?
Arrival has you by the heartstrings from the off (think the opening of Pixar’s UP but rawer and less cute) and we’re eventually brought full circle to a heartbreaking and yet life-affirming ending. From the start Louise is shown to be a fallible, ordinary woman with a particular area of expertise. Adams goes on to carry the film almost single-handedly with a taut and impassioned performance that is among her very best. Jeremy Renner is reliable in support as physicist Ian Donnelly, but he is mostly there to provide timely explanations of scientific principles and this is definitely not his story.
It’s only when you watch a film like Arrival you realise how lazy some other films really are. You could count on one hand the number of sci-fi movies that acknowledge the realities here, the difficulties of changing gravity, alien atmosphere and extraterrestrials a) speaking our language and b) not being able to make their motives clear without a method to communicate with humanity. A huge amount of the story is dedicated to the slow development of a way to communicate with the aliens. Said aliens, the Heptapods, who as their name suggests are seven-legged and completely non-humanoid, don’t even have mouths. So comes the idea of communication through interpretation of writing and symbols, and the inky hieroglyphs our extraterrestrial visitors produce are shaped thematically appropriately to say the least. If the meaning of that last sentence didn’t leap out at you, don’t worry, just watch the film.
This quest for understanding comes about through the exploration of some pretty massive sci-fi themes, from our interpretation of time to emotion surpassing speech and body language as a method of expression. It’s certainly a talking point of a movie and the ending and its implications will have you discussing the meaning of most of the movie for the foreseeable future. I’m not going to be any more specific than that about the place the characters and this world ends up, just watch the film.
It’s another layered and sonically interesting soundtrack from Jóhann Jóhannsson, re-teaming with Villeneuve and making the score for this sci-fi as beautiful as SICARIO was oppressive. The same could be said for the film in general really: beautiful and positive sci-fi with some cool-looking UFOs (which are always shot from just the right angle to be an attractive shape). They’re a killer combination, both well-versed in tweaking the recognisable to make something original and vibrant. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s contribution can’t be overlooked either, though I’m still struggling to reconcile this work with the guy who wrote the remakes of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE THING.
I didn’t need a wall of screens with a representative of each nation confined to a square for the tactical briefing scenes. Whereas pretty much everything else in the film is convincing and creative, this rings so falsely and just comes across as ridiculous in contrast to the rest of the film. I also wouldn’t have minded seeing Louise making more explicit use of her multi-lingual skills (perhaps in the just mentioned ridiculous briefings with the world leaders) rather than doing most of her work from an iPad. These are of course very minor gripes in a pretty flawless lake.
Arrival is one of the films of the year; brainy, soulful and ripe for debate. Adams drives everything and Villeneuve has come up with a striking new way to look at our species’ place in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said enough. Just watch the film. SSP