Denis Villeneuve’s follow up to Sicario (2015) is a contemporary sci-fi masterpiece that skilfully places raw human emotion at the heart of its mind-bending narrative.
The outer skin of Arrival seems relatively straightforward, 12 giant alien spaceships (that look like insanely large boulders that even Indiana Jones couldn’t out pace) have landed on earth, in 12 apparently completely random, unrelated locations. Amy Adams’ Dr. Banks a renowned linguist, is hired by the military to translate the alien’s cryptic messages; also hired along for the ride is Jeremy Renner’s somewhat flirtatious Ian Donnelly, a renowned physicist. However, as this skin is gradually peeled away, Villeneuve asks us to delve further and further into the strange alien messages, further and further into the complex narrative presented in front of us. This is extremely ambitious filmmaking, Villeneuve wastes no time in explaining what’s going on and he expects an awful lot of his audience in asking us to keep up; it’s certainly refreshing to see a sci-fi film where time isn’t wasted with classic Jeff Goldblum-type characters explaining everything every five minutes (sorry Jeff).
Arrival is a complex film, after the initial invasion, or half-invasion (the aliens never really leave their ships), the narrative takes a real turn as reality, time and space are all questioned and the audience, like the characters, are left simply both mesmerised and bewildered in equal measure. Like Interstellar and 2001, this is intelligent science fiction; the fact that the spacecraft look curiously similar to the Monolith from 2001 is surely no coincidence. Although the story of course bears more resemblance to Spielberg’s Close Encounters, or The Day the Earth Stood Still. Villeneuve managed to offer a real twist on the age-old Mexican border drug running narrative with Sicario, and he has achieved a similar feat here with the sci-fi genre.
Villeneuve’s film also offers an intriguing political premise: What would happen in contemporary society if separate alien crafts landed in all of the major countries. Arrival claims that the world’s political leaders would eventually all turn on each other, bickering amongst themselves whilst they miss the true meaning of the aliens’ presence. This is surely eerily accurate, especially in today’s post-Trump, post-Brexit political climate, could you possibly imagine Donald Trump attempting to peacefully communicate with other-worldly forces as our planet’s solitary representative? … Hmm…
There are so many aspects of Arrival that are done tremendously well, the cinematography is glorious, despite being largely set in a Montana field, cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) does wonderfully well to make mankind look so small compared to the ominous Other. The film’s soundtrack is also fantastic, with Villeneuve’s regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson delivering an eerie, mysterious undertone to match the visuals perfectly.
However, at the centre of everything is a truly fantastic performance by Amy Adams who is fast-becoming Hollywood’s leading lady. This is a film that focuses on human emotion, more specifically, the loss of a child. Villeneuve’s camera consistently lingers on our protagonist; we spend more time on close-ups of her face than the aliens themselves. Adams really comes into her own, offering a real heartfelt and mesmerizing performance, I could not picture anyone else doing such a magnificent job in that role.
Arrival is an extremely intelligent sci-fi film, one that uses the genre to mask its true intentions: to ask its audience not whether we are alone in this universe, but instead what it means to live, to love, and also to lose.
Go and seek this film out, it is a refreshingly brilliant take on a common sci-fi trope, and one that is ingrained deeply within the human condition.
| Josh Hall
Sci-fi, Drama | Canada, 2016 | 12A | Entertainment One | 10th November 2016 (UK) | Dir.Denis Villeneuve |Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma