Arrival

Posted: November 18, 2016 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

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I can’t believe they said that! How rude!

When a dozen alien spacecraft land at random point across the Earth humanity wonders what this means for the future. Is this the prelude to an invasion, or are the aliens here to help us? No one knows, and though every eighteen hours the ships open up so that humans can converse with the aliens, communication is problematic due to just how, well alien, the aliens’ language is.

Colonel Weber (Whitaker) recruits top linguist Louise Banks (Adams) to form part of a team that will try and communicate with the aliens who’ve landed in Montana. Also assigned to the team is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner).

Banks quickly realises that it will be impossible to communication verbally with the aliens due to the nature of their spoken language, but she does determine that she might be able to communicate using written language, even though the aliens’ writing is very different to anything on Earth.

Progress is slow but eventually the two species begin to communicate, the process aided by cooperation between the scientific teams in China, Russia, the UK and the other nations where a ship has landed. As time passes however distrust between nations, and paranoia over the aliens’ intentions grow, to the point where communication between the different scientific teams is cut off.

With time running out, and with the Chinese preparing for war, Banks must find a way to communicate with the aliens in order to determine their true intentions. What do they mean when they talk about a weapon, and why is Banks plagued by dreams of her young daughter, who we saw die at the start of the film?

 

Some films are great, and some films are lucky, arriving at just the right time to catch a zeitgeist, and some films are a little of both. There’s something very meaningful about watching Arrival at the tail end of 2016, in a year that’s seen us in the UK vote for Brexit, and Donald Trump blag his way to the Whitehouse via a campaign of division and outright racism. At a time when right wing parties are gaining influence in France, Germany and Austria, Arrival’s themes of communication and cooperation feel incredibly resonant.

Directed by Villeneuve, the man who gave us Sicario, and based on an award winning short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a proper science fiction film, but not only that, it’s a proper science fiction film done well. Too often hard sci-fi films can be cold, clinical, inaccessible, but Arrival is none of those things, grounded as it is by an incredible performance by Amy Adams as Banks, a warm, empathetic and utterly human character who has to go beyond what any human has done before in order to prevent tragedy, and one who will have to make a horrible choice for the most human of reasons.

Which isn’t to say Arrival is a fast paced thriller. It isn’t. This is a slow burning film, and I’ll admit, to begin with I was wondering what was supposed to be the big deal. It was ok, well-acted and interesting at least, but then… oh my…

Precious few films really surprise me anymore. I’m not trying to be smug and oh-so-clever Starkey about this, it’s just when you’ve seen a lot of films you tend to pick up on turns in the plot before they happen. Arrival genuinely surprised me. There comes a point—you’ll know when it is—when the film transcends what has gone before and becomes magnificent. Actually transcends is a poor choice of words, because what it really does is make you reappraise what you’ve witnessed up to this point, and I can’t wait to watch the film again knowing what I know now.

I won’t tell you what the twist is, and again twist is a poor choice of words (maybe I need Banks’ help with my language) because it isn’t some cheap parlour trick. Instead what you have is a tightly woven plot that makes complete sense, a film that works on every level and whose internal logic is completely watertight, which is a rarity. We’re talking 12 Monkeys here, or The Prestige.

For a film of big ideas it isn’t a film with a long run time. It’s less than two hours and Villeneuve does not waste a second, nor does he blind you with science or introduce concepts that fly high above your head. There’s some mind-bending stuff at play in Arrival, yet Villeneuve never patronises, yet also never overloads you. Linguistic and scientific concepts are explained in straightforward, though never condescending, ways. This is a film that understands most of its audience won’t have studied theoretical physics or linguistics to degree level, yet also understands that most of its audience are capable of appreciating the concepts the story revolves around. This is a film that treats its audience like grownups.

For a film about first contact with an alien species, it’s a surprisingly intimate film, with much of the action taking place within the alien ship, or within an army tent, and for a film about a global event the cast is sparse. Whitaker is good as the man in charge, portraying an officer who’ll follow orders without every tripping over into the cliché of a man who puts his orders above everything else. Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA agent is unfortunately far more stereotypical.

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You can tell this man is a scientist because he’s wearing glasses.

Renner is good value as the physicist trying to balance Banks’ intuition, though you never quite feel the chemistry that the two characters should share.

This is Adams’ film however and I think the only thing that’s going to stop her getting Oscar nominated for this is if she’s Oscar nominated for Nocturnal Animals instead. She’s brave, nervous, confused, inspired, brilliant, loving…a fully rounded character in fact, and we almost don’t need to see the aliens or their ships, seeing Banks looking at them is almost enough because Adams’ acting is that good.

The effects are sparse, yet all the more impressive for it. For starters it’s a while before we see the alien ships, and when we do everything about them is genuinely alien, from how they look to even how they hang in the sky its clear these fellows aren’t from around here, and the final shot of them is wonderful.

Yes the aliens themselves do seem a trifle familiar (in particular their shadowy appearance behind glass in a smoke filled room reminded me of Torchwood: Children of Earth) and the film does seem to riff on other films a little, but I don’t think this was intentional, rather there are just certain things you expect from a film like this: longshots of alien ships hovering above the earth, hazmat suits, computer screens, whiteboards and sharpies, plus its increasingly difficult to come up with a wholly original alien character. Where the film excels is in the little things, like the aliens’ language, and seeing them write a single word/sentence in the air with black smoke is way more impressive than anything in, for example, Dr Strange.

Add in some genuine humour, including a joke about Sheena Easton and Donnelly’s amusing nickname for the aliens they’re trying to talk to, and you’re left with a film of big concepts that’s as accessible as the average romantic comedy.

It might lack the visual splendour of Sicario, but Villeneuve still keeps you glued to the screen, and it might lack the visceral horror of Sicario too, but it isn’t that kind of film. And whilst Emily Blunt is brilliant, her character in Sicario is eventually side-lined to become nothing but a spectator, whereas Louise Banks is given a lot more agency, for all that this is a film about determinism it always seems that Banks is author of her own fate.

Warm, sad, hopeful, magnificent. An awe inspiring film and absolutely one of my films of the year.

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“Is that an Oscar I can see?”

 

 

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Comments
  1. Okay, you’ve sold me on this one – and it’s one I think the Mr will enjoy too.

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