Starring: Amy Adams (Man of Steel), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Forest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man)
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Sicario)
Writer: Eric Heisserer (Lights Out)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 10 November (UK), 11 November (US)
Humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life has been the subject of a lot of movies. The Day The Earth Stood Still, Signs, Independence Day, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: First Contact; I could go on and on. But one aspect that is often glossed over is, “How would we even speak to them?” Most films would blow over this issue by the aliens being so advanced that they’ve already figured out our language, but if this were to happen in the real world that would be far less likely. Arrival not only tackles this subject in a fascinating way, but goes beyond just that to become one of the most affecting and relevant sci-fi films of modern cinema.
Arrival, like all of director Denis Villeneuve’s work, is very carefully paced. There is a lot of build-up before our main characters even get to see the spacecraft, and from there the film very gradually builds the tension as the situation gets more heated. It’s a very effective mounting of events as pressure from other governments and the outside world weighs down on this situation, which gives the story a real-world atmosphere not seen since Close Encounters. Anyone expecting an alien invasion flick with a lot of explosions need not apply, as this is a film focused far more on the theory of extraterrestrial contact, so when the sh*t does start hitting the fan it feels way more impactful. All that research and discovery stuff is compelling to watch regardless though, as the amount of detail that goes into creating this alien language and how our characters delve deeper into its meaning only draws you in more. But talking about what really makes Arrival so engaging without going deep into spoilers is difficult but what I can say is that, whilst its twists aren’t exactly revolutionary to the genre, they work wonders because they tie so deeply with the film’s themes and emotions. Above everything else, this is a film about nations having to work together to move humanity forward, and in the current political and social climate that’s a message I think a lot of us can get behind.
The cast of Arrival is small but it packs a heavy punch, and Amy Adams pulls a lot of that weight as language professor turned reluctant alien translator Dr. Louise Banks. Adams has a lot of heavy material to work with but she brings a subdued determination to the role, avoiding overselling these heavy emotions and allowing the moment to let it all sink in. She’s a determined but apprehensive character, wanting to solve this crisis the best she can but she really needs time she does not have to do it effectively. It’s one of Adams’ finest performances to date, but her supporting cast aren’t too shabby either. Jeremy Renner’s scientist Ian Donnelly doesn’t get quite as much to do plot-wise, but he makes for an enjoyable presence for Adams to work off of and they have strong chemistry together. Forest Whittaker and Michael Stuhlbarg feel perfectly cast as the colonel and the CIA agent trying to lead this effort, and luckily their actions that hinder Adams’ progress don’t feel forced; they feel like natural reactions to a mounting crisis instead of the plot forcing conflict.
Villeneuve’s films always manage to fill you with a sense of dread and awe from just the visuals, and Arrival does it as well as any of them. Bradford Young’s cinematography is simply gorgeous in its grandiose simplicity, creating a hazy but chilling atmosphere whenever that looming spacecraft comes into view. The production design across the board is very minimalist but incredibly effective, giving this alien ship and its peculiar inhabitants a neutral presence that makes you question their moral alliance. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is haunting but beautiful in its straightforwardness, subtly pulling on your emotions in the background rather than drawing attention away from the visuals. With a fantastic technical presentation like this, it only makes me more excited to see what Villeneuve can do with Blade Runner 2049 next year.
Arrival is a great example of a simple concept executed to perfection. Villeneuve has managed to do for the genre of science fiction what he did for the thriller with Prisoners and make a seemingly simple but marvelously detailed and emotionally wrenching movie. Not every piece of it is a new invention for the medium, but it takes a lot of the concepts we are familiar with from first contact sci-fi stories and sheds new light on them from a modern perspective. Like Zootopia did earlier this year, this film really shows why as a society we are failing and offers an encouraging message about cooperation for the betterment of everyone. 2016 hasn’t been a great year for cinema, but this would be a crowning gem in any of them.
FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!