FILM REVIEW: ARRIVAL
Running Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: 11th November 2016
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer
Director of Cinematography: Bradford Young
There’s no doubt that Denis Villeneuve is one of the good guys. The Canadian filmmaker is in the same class as Jeff Nichols, Rian Johnson or Alejandro Iñárritu, and has an unblemished track record of original, quality work. While Villeneuve hasn’t put a foot wrong so far, that may all change with the release of Blade Runner: 2049 next year (Villeneuve was handed this poisoned chalice when Ridley Scott exited the director’s chair of the long-gestating sequel back in 2014). But for now Villeneuve is on safe ground. Arrival is a smart, persuasive sci-fi. And it is utterly magnificent.
Villeneuve’s movie (based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”) deals with the sudden arrival of otherworldly beings on earth. When twelve amorphous black shells appear over random locations (including Russia, China and – curiously – Montana), the authorities are left completely in the dark. With initial attempts at communication proving unsuccessful, the US military enlist professor of linguistics Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help communicate with the new arrivals and find out what they want.
Banks’ face time with the aliens is limited to brief hour-long intervals, and she is hindered further by trying to communicate through a thick foggy screen. As days turn into weeks, she discovers that the “heptapods” language isn’t formed by words or sounds, but a sequence of inky blobs that look exactly like (bear with me here) Sigur Rós album cover artwork. So in essence, Banks is tasked with explaining the difference between Ágætis Byrjun and Takk to a bunch of US Marines before someone starts shooting nukes at the new visitors.
So far, so Independence Day. But Arrival is no dumb space flick. Think about it; when was the last time a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster dealt with determinism, linguistic relativity and abstract thought?
If Roland Emmerich’s wet bag of stupid made you feel dumber with each passing minute, then Villeneuve talks up to his audience instead. As any good sci-fi should, Arrival presents us with a world that is essentially ours but with one significant difference. The action is persuasively grounded, with much of it transpiring in a muddy field in Montana. While Arrival is certainly fantastical, it is never absurd. There’s an indefinable charm in watching a bunch of humans using a JCB cherry picker to get into a UFO.
Arrival starts off as a slow burner, with some nicely played scenes of suppressed panic (like students’ phones going off in unison in a near-empty auditorium, or Banks trying to sleep with one eye on the TV). As her world turns quickly from the mundane to the extraordinary, Adams plays it with a plausible mix of suppressed terror and irresistible curiosity. While there is grand spectacle here in abundance, Villeneuve avoids any big, CG-heavy money shots. Instead the director adopts a realist aesthetic, and as Banks approaches the landing site for the first time, we see what she sees. These point-of-view shots bristle with an intense energy.
Arrival tackles the same big themes as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (and – more obscurely – 2010, Peter Hyams’ long forgotten sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Like Nolan’s giant game of intergalactic Jenga, it also succumbs to a finale that’s a tad on the mawkish side, but Villeneuve has done more than enough in the preceding 100 minutes to earn himself a sentimental ending.
Arrival isn’t a simplistic, binary tale. Instead, it leaves the audience with some big questions to ponder long after the cloying resolution has disappeared from memory. This is science fiction at its very best.