Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien and Tzi Ma.
Dr. Louise Banks, a celebrated linguist reeling from personal tragedy, is called in by the military to decode the language of an alien civilisation when a strange spacecraft lands in Montana…
There’s a human message in Arrival which doesn’t just feel timely, but rather essential as we draw to an end of a year which will, sadly, be remembered as infamous. Denis Villeneuve’s picture almost feels like a cinematic elegy to communication and understanding, symbolically representing a period in history where communication, language and interpretation are being eroded by the fabric of history. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s award-winning novella ‘Story of Your Life’, Villeneuve’s film is his logical extension into the world of science-fiction; arresting while nonetheless stripped of brightness and colour, distancing while shot through with a sadness and emotion which underpins everything that takes place in what may seem on the face of it to be an ‘alien invasion’ movie, though is in truth anything but. If there are any aliens in Arrival, it’s us. It’s our humanity, lost within a maelstrom of fear, intolerance and basic mass hysteria. It’s possibly, alongside Under the Skin, the closest approximation to a Stanley Kubrick film around today.
Hyperbole, perhaps, but there’s something arch and important about Arrival, in the nature of that director’s films, without it being imposing or hard to enjoy. It’s riven with intelligence, both in Eric Heisserer’s clever, pared back script and Villeneuve’s measured, assured direction which allows the entire story to be driven through Amy Adams’ central protagonist. Her journey is the journey, in microcosm, of us all as Louise Banks, a celebrated language professor called in to decode communications from an alien vessel which has landed in Montana.
Her grief at a terrible personal tragedy informs Adams’ quiet, haunted performance and Louise’s determination to understand the alien visitors–who exist in a highly different state to human beings, with an entirely different system of communication. Jeremy Renner is equally good playing almost against type as a scientist brought in by Forest Whitaker’s stern military colonel – Renner dialling down the intense action man theatrics to give an intelligent performance as a man of science buffering off Adams’ more humanistic expert. Their dynamic isn’t the heart of the piece but it’s an important element, which helps ground and humanise further the truly alien nature of investigating the interlopers, and the two leads neatly underplay their characters nicely.
Humanity is a word that keeps being used in describing Arrival and that’s because its key, it’s crucial to understanding a movie all about understanding, about language, a and about how we communicate with each other as a species. Villeneuve’s depiction of the different major Earth powers and how they react to alien visitors may skirt cliche but it almost feels the point, as hawkish Chinese act on their guard and other follow suit as the dominoes of misunderstanding begin to fall. The human reaction to such an event, or the lack thereof, feels real; mass hysteria, global panic, looting, riots, a media drumming up the situation, the exact kind of fear and instinctual terror being counterbalanced by Adams trying to connect to her own feelings of loss, her own attempt to find meaning.
This allows her to start understanding why the aliens have arrived and the answers are, well… fascinating, and genuinely unexpected, in the kind of manner that rewards not knowing anything in advance. There’s an extra factor to what the alien language means which plays into the structure and thematic resonance Villeneuve ultimately taps into, and it’s as heartbreaking as it is profound. Everything has meaning by the conclusion, for Louise and for the world around her, and while the piece ends as it began there’s still an emotional difference which gives the piece, strangely, an air of hope. It’s hard to explain, much like the conclusion itself.
A lot of Arrival comes down to interpretation and while Denis Villeneuve’s picture isn’t a puzzle impossible to understand, it’s equally not quite as structured and linear as it may appear. There’s a haunting beauty to the cinematography and the narrative itself, not to mention the script, which sets it apart from many modern science-fiction films and allows it that sense of intelligent distance that will potentially make it resonant for many years to come. It’s as much about who we are as what the alien visitors may be, and as we edge closer to a world which feels backward thinking, such a movie is a timely reminder that in communicating as humans we may find a better tomorrow. Sobering, challenging and not easily forgotten.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★