Film, Reviews, Screen

Arrival movie review: an absorbing and audacious thinking-person’s Sci-Fi

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They arrive suddenly and inexplicably. They cannot speak English nor any discernible human dialect. They look weird; slightly out of this world. The media goes into meltdown. Scientists study their behaviour, trying to make sense of it. The question on everybody’s mind is: do they come in peace, or is their plan to crush the world like a paper cup?

But enough about Donald Trump supporters. Director Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival is the latest in a run of thinking-person’s Sci-Fi movies from Hollywood, following big budget and big-thinking entries including Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. 

Arrival begins wistfully, with linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) reflecting on the nature of memories and the death of her young daughter. One of her university lectures is interrupted when a student suggests hey, you might want to turn on the news.

Alien vessels have arrived. They are suspended metres from the ground at a dozen locations around the world. They look like huge black eggs from the front and Kubrickian brazil nuts from the side. One media commentator asks: “If this is a peaceful first contact, why send 12? Why not just one?” Indeed, it is a valid question for nations suddenly contemplating a real-life The Day the Earth Stood Still remake.

Presumably Donald Trump is not yet in the Oval Office, so Uncle Sam’s immediate response isn’t to throw some nukes around – or build a wall to separate our visitors. Of course, making the aliens pay for it.

Banks is paired with a physicist, Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. As is par for the course in multiplex movies, a couple of rather good looking geeks. Both actors deliver strong and restrained performances (Adams particularly is in fine form) that shed their celebrity baggage as much as can be expected without using makeup or prosthetics.

The greatest lazy eye in motion picture history, attached to its owner, the even greater Forest Whitaker, enters the scene as a Colonel with the President and other top brass on speed dial. Banks and Donnelly’s task is to ascertain why the aliens have arrived. As the physicist puts it: “Are they scientists or tourists? If they’re scientists, they don’t ask many questions.”

To get a straight answer they need, of course, to establish means of communicating. Before you know it Amy Adams is in front of a whiteboard, circling words and discussing the very concept of a question. You know the film is doing something special when subtitles appear on screen while she communicates with a creature that looks like a cross between a wire head massager and a giant squid.

Globs of airbrush-like mist surround the aliens in their space ship, presumably also playing a part in keeping the special effects budget under control. But Arrival is nothing remotely like an SFX fest. In fact, it feels like a minor miracle the studio didn’t insist on juicing it up with more money shots and trailer-accommodating razzmatazz.

Villeneuve’s highly disciplined approach, aided by a fine, sparse score from Jóhann Jóhannsson and polished albeit unflashy cinematography from Bradford Young (who shot Selma and A Most Violent Year) keeps a strong focus on story, characters and themes. The predictable path would have been to make more of a world in chaos. There’s an element of that, but the director (who recently helmed Sicario and Prisoners, both excellent) heavily focuses on his protagonist.

Arrival takes a what-if premise that continues to fascinate (the arrival of aliens on earth) and stretches it out in a deeply captivating, full-bodied way. The atmosphere is too richly cinematic to be considered forensic, or procedural, but there’s an element of that in the film – an immense sense of control, as if the characters are breathing very finely modulated air.

The big question is where this is all heading and how Villeneuve can possibly deliver something satisfyingly climactic, given his obvious resistance to overt spectacle and showmanship. The last act, certain to provoke descriptions like “mind-blowing”, handles the challenge beautifully.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting a short story called Story of Your Life) takes a single word and uses it to distil the entire meaning of Arrival, or at least a massive chunk of it. That’s an audacious move. And, like the film itself, a fine balance of gutsiness and grace.

3 responses to “Arrival movie review: an absorbing and audacious thinking-person’s Sci-Fi

  1. Arriving where it began! Thanks for your splendid review! Went to see it Sunday afternoon in a newly revamped Hoyts cinema complex – thought we’d stumbled into the wrong Cinema – no concerns about heads in front – and push button leg rests back recline – Wow. And then the movie – Renner and Adams and Forest WHITTAKER – all excellent as you say – understated. Only the military types played to the stereotypical book-headed expectations (and this part played to our thinking of those Trump is appointing to his “cabinet”) – but the best part was the reference to Abbott! There were murmurs around the cinema – many of us there caught that unintended verity (not a positive) immediately! Five stars from me!

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