Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker
Release Date: Out Now
If you don’t already know Denis Villeneuve from the fantastic Sicario, or the underrated Prisoners then you’re certainly going to remember him after this superb sci-fi film.
Arrival is quite possibly the best sci-fi flick of the last decade, up there with the likes of Ex Machina and Snowpiercer. These films show that you don’t need a huge budget to create an incredible sci-fi experience.
That isn’t necessarily a dig at any big budget films released lately, but it just goes to show that with the right script and crew, the sci-fi genre can deliver something genuinely powerful.
And that’s exactly what Arrival is.
Based on the short story ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, the film deals mainly with the theme of language. It dabbles in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is to say that the way people think is strongly affected by their native, or in some cases, secondary language.
When we hear a language unbeknownst to us, we tend to feel confused as to what might be said. Often we assume that what’s being said is in a negative light.
Arrival central message is to not to judge someone by the alien language they use and that, through careful study, you might learn to organically overcome these initial fears.
Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) is aptly introduced in a lecture hall, explaining the intricacies of linguistics. Her lesson quickly cut short by news reports showing Earth being invaded by extra-terrestrial life-forms. With twelve monumental alien space-crafts showing up at various locales around the world, the whole planet is terrified about what might happen (we’ve all seen Independence Day), but nothing does.
The spaceships simply hover in place, un-moving and pointedly not attacking. This is when the military decides to enlist Dr. Banks. With the help of mathematician Ian Donnelly (Renner) and US Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker), they must put together a team of other scientists and mathematicians.
Their goal is to find out why the Heptapods are here, what they want, and whether or not they’re dangerous. Adding a spicy flavour to the mix, they must also remain in contact with teams at the other 11 locations, as they attempt to deal with this ‘invasion’ in their own way.
Banks and Donnelly make slow progress in communicating with the Heptapods, struggling to understand their spoken language. As with many languages, the key to the learning process is in trying to decode the written language, which is where their progress is made.
Banks stresses the importance of a more intimate approach however, literally extending her hand to the alien beings. This is the turning point for her character. Her friendly gestures trigger multiple flashbacks of her life, putting the focus very much on her, while simultaneously presenting obstacles in her path.
Tensions grow between nations, as is so often the case. Interestingly, or perhaps naively, America isn’t the country out to wage war. Russia and China wave that particular flag, repeatedly emphasizing their desire to attack.
Other countries are less aggressive, simply opting to turn a blind eye and refusing to communicate with the beings. Poetically, as each nation visually and audibly disconnects from one other, progress becomes more and more fragmented.
Only Banks and Donnelly maintain the course, in an effort to prevent an inherent global response from bubbling to the surface: that perhaps attack is simply the best course of action.
Arrival brings with it a lot of emotion, aided in no small part by a terrific score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The cinematography from Bradford Young is also worthy of a mention, bringing complete enthralment to almost every scene.
From the first moment Dr. Banks encounters the Heptapods, the sense of fear that runs through her is conveyed exquisitely. The music and sounds you hear perfectly encapsulate the atmosphere, as you first see these Lovecraftian-type aliens slowly moving through the fog. With tentacles whipping in every direction, the scene leaves you with a palpable sense of dread.
And then, the film expertly assures you that everything is okay.
Amy Adams is truly superb in her role, dealing with a wide spectrum of issues and conveying this strain brilliantly and believably. Aside from aliens, the US army, stubborn government officials, she also has to confront the dark shadow of heartbreak involving a former lover.
As with so many classic sci-fi films, this has a lot to say about the world we live in. But it is also a deeply personal journey for its main character. There are aliens, there is the threat of impending war, but this is a film very much about Dr. Banks.
Written by Graeme Redmond