Review: Arrival

A tense, very intelligent and surprisingly emotionally-centred sci-fi, Arrival is a real treat on nearly every level, and makes me want to see dozens more Denis Villeneuve movies.

12 wedge-shaped spacecraft land across earth, with each nation scrambling to respond, and the US government enlists linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), under the supervision of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). As Banks and Donnelly discover more and more about the aliens that have arrived, the rest of the world’s reactions spark tension, and Banks begins to spiral as the stress of the situation takes its toll on everyone.

Villeneuve last made Sicario, my favourite film of the couple of years, and the Canadian director’s move into science fiction (soon to be followed by a Blade Runner sequel) is most welcome. Arrival is based on a short story, The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, and the original story – and adaptation by Eric Heisserer – take aim at science fiction and alien “first contact” through a different prism: communication. The film concerns how we would try to talk with a species beyond our comprehension, with Adams’ Banks using her linguistic abilities to best try and create a shared understanding. There are no ‘pew-pew’ battles or much action of any sort – this is a thinking person’s alien invasion.arrival

This leads the film to be more introspective, to feel like a more realistic response to a momentous event – and as the plot transforms and shifts throughout the second and final acts, a clever series of misdirections illuminate a powerful central core. In particular, the film takes one key idea other modern sci-fi films try to deal with (Interstellar strongly comes to mind) and quite expertly (and neatly) wraps the plot together. I won’t say any more, but it’s a clever sleight-of-hand based on an element of the universe humans continue to struggle to deal with – and it allows for an otherwise science-y plot to fold in a strong, emotional core that’s fully exposed come the end.

What I loved about Sicario was how tense, how dangerous the movie felt – and Villeneuve’s direction is an immense part of that. Slow, steady takes build up tension – such as a mundane procession through decontamination, and the first approach to the alien craft – and powerfully, painfully draw out scenes and set-pieces, cranking up your nerves. Another large part is a thunderous, gloomy score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, at times practically hammering your senses when they’re already on edge (a series of odd wails every so often lets the score down from being fantastic).

The movie’s desaturated look adds a sheen of gloom, cinematographer Bradford Young letting in colour when important and otherwise using stark whites and blacks to accentuate the creeping doom. The effects play into this too, with only the ship and its residents needing the aid of CGI, with the aliens actually alien in appearance for once.

On the performance side, Amy Adams is excellent as our heroine – with Louise a fiercely intelligent but human woman who confounds our expectations at every step. The actress seems to delight in playing complex, multi-layered characters and Banks is no different – especially as our preconceptions about Louise’s past, her seeming timidity and her haunted demeanour all fit together like a puzzle as the film progresses. It’s definitely her film, and I don’t know that another actress would have done the role justice. Jeremy Renner plays pleasingly against type as Donnelly, an understanding and droll presence alongside Banks as they both put themselves on the line to discover what the aliens are doing here. In particular, the absolute lack of a relationship drama between the two characters forces us to view them as co-workers, teaming up to solve problems, rather than potential lovers – hurrah. It’s definitely an understated performance, but works when Adams’ role is as strong.

The best of the rest of the cast (there are a lot of people, but not many that feature prominently) include Whitaker’s gruff, well-meaning Colonel, in a pressured position between the team and the US government which plays out in impatience and constant need for dumbed-down explanations, with the actor capturing that conflict well. Michael Stuhlbarg’s peacefully menacing CIA agent looms behind the scenes, and represents the unsurprisingly enraging response most humans would have to such a situation (imagine Trump’s gung-ho attack reaction, for instance).

Overall, sci-fi fans must see Arrival, because it’s excellent and tackles weighty themes in a classy way. I would say give it a try even if you’re not a big sci-fi fan, because there might be something in its story and characters that you enjoy. For me, it’s one of the better films this year, no question!

 

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