Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien and Tzi Ma.
When mysterious flying spacecrafts touch down around the globe, a team of experts are briefed with the task of cracking the code of exactly why they are here…
With Arrival, Dennis Villeneuve has managed to pull off that rare trick of creating a sci-fi ‘event’ movie that is both epic in scale and cerebral in depth. Concentrating on the finer details of linguistic research and mathematical probability equations rather than the smash and grab of space conflict, this is a work that aims high and keeps on climbing. Containing discernible elements of Villeneuve’s previous work – particularly the political other-worldliness of Incendies and the fragmented identity tension of Enemy – there is a grandeur about this production that fits the big themes of humanity and communication with aplomb.
Based on a Ted Chiang short story, the film focuses on Amy Adams’s expert linguistics professor who is drafted in to try and cast some light on just what the newly arrived aliens are trying to say. Joined by no-nonsense army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and wisecracking mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Adams’s Louise Banks gradually uncovers clues as to what the aliens are talking about and just what they have in store.
By conducting a series of ‘interviews’ with two of the beings on board one of the twelve giant structures that have descended around the world, Banks and Donnelly start to build up a picture of possibilities. The creatures, officially named heptapods, display a creepy level of surreal alien nature about them that is in keeping with the escalating strangeness of things. There is nothing familiar about the creatures, and when the two experts give them nicknames there is a more than a touch of fear along with scholarly respect on show, like offering a head teacher a jokey name to attempt to gain some sort of control.
Ultimately though this is not a story about the aliens, rather what the aliens show us about humanity and the world. The problems of communication and understanding each other don’t change, they just become more extreme. In that, this is a useful reminder (if one was ever needed) to talk things through – no matter how difficult – before reaching for the phaser, stun gun or nuclear warhead.
Adams is central to bringing out the humanity in all of this. It is her performance that allows an intelligence and wisdom to keep the film on track. Succeeding in providing a personal story alongside the cosmic, it succeeds in subtly provoking sympathy for the central characters without going completely overboard on the whole small story expanded theme (something which, in my opinion, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was not so successful with.)
Proving once and for all that memorable sci-fi can concentrate on the big ideas without descending into arcade action, Arrival is a film to experience and then think about… and then think about some more.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.