Running Time: 116 minutes
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma
A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications.
Aliens coming to Earth usually bring to mind certain things; Landmarks being destroyed; a hostile takeover of our bodies by pod people or else some other kind of enslavement. Sure there’s been an ET here or there (or if you’re feeling particularly homicidal, Mack and Me) but for the most part, it never really comes with happy images or outcomes for humans.
Arrival is a different beast altogether but what they have in common with Independence Day or Invasion of the Body-snatchers is a certain sense of dread. Arrival is slow and methodical but its genius lies in a masterful ratcheting up of tension and also Amy Adams’s stellar performance. It is, if not one of the best movies of the year, perhaps the most important and shows that sci-fi in Hollywood is in the middle of a creative renaissance.
The film begins not with the arrival of aliens but with a much more personal, intimate beginning that has shades of Pixar’s Up. In this way, Arrival sets out its stall early. This isn’t about following the usual alien invasion tropes; this is about following Adams’s character as she comes to grips with a strange event whilst she deals with issues of motherhood, loneliness and the passing of time.
Bradford Young’s crisp and clean cinematography (evoking Emmanuel Lubezki’s Malick-related work) uses close up to a wonderful effect and in those intimate moments, Amy Adams really shines. It is truly one of the strongest performances of the year and Adams’s best to date. Adams plays Louise Banks who is a linguistics and translation expert enlisted by Forrest Whitaker’s army intelligence Colonel to help with finding out why 12 elongated sea shell-looking space craft have touched down across the Earth and most importantly what their intent is. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to Banks and her relationship with her daughter and this forms the emotional centre of the movie.
The main action of Banks communicating with the aliens (and ably assisted by Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist) unfolds slowly but in a deliberate way as we become increasingly aware that other nations (particularly Russia and China) as well as America are starting to become anxious about these looming, potential threats. The fact that the aliens look a little, well, alien doesn’t ease anyone’s fears. Arrival shows us that communicating with aliens who do not share our languages or symbols may be difficult but that communicating with our fellow humans can be equally fraught. And therein lies not only the brilliance of the film in how it creates tension but how it poses one of the films big ideas – communication. Without communication or language, we would have no culture but what happens when communication gets loaded with the baggage of our own fears and uncertainty? It begins to break down.
Arrival plays it for real without ever referencing, in a meta sense, other invasion movies but by referencing our own history. Our fears of extra-terrestrials are not exactly unwarranted. When visitors from afar arrive, the natives tend not to fair well. The Aboriginals and the Native Americans can attest to that. Denis Villeneuve, the director, plays brilliantly on this fact as the feeling of impending doom when Adams and Renner first enter the alien shell is palpable and this is superbly complemented by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie, other-worldly score. Special mention should be made for the visuals of how the aliens communicate. It’s both visually beautiful and ominous at the same time.
Villeneuve has shown in his previous films (Prisoners and Sicario), a flare for creating tension and atmosphere by degrees. Like a master conductor he piles on not only tension but emotional complexity too, what was to my mind, an emotionally satisfying and earned conclusion. To say any more would be spoiling a great movie and some people may be divided over the ending but you’ll be talking about it and not enough studio movies engender that kind of debate.
To be fair to Hollywood though, Arrival is part of a trend of intelligent and character centred sci-fi movies that include the likes of Gravity, Interstellar and most recently, The Martian. It bodes well for sci-fi (and us) that Villeneuve is directing the sequel to Blade Runner. I would say Interstellar is probably still my pick of the bunch but Arrival will get a second and possibly even third viewing from me. It is first and foremost a strong character piece but crucially it has some big themes that are worth revisiting. On the surface, Arrival is a film about aliens and how we might communicate with them but like all good sci-fi, it’s really about something else, something more human. It’s about us and how we communicate with each other.
A film with a strong emotional centre and big ideas is a welcome breath of fresh air in dark and uncertain times.