Arrival will blow your mind and stir your soul
Despite the familial troubles of previous films Incendies and Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve has always felt rather cold, seemingly more interested in twisting plots and violence than emotion. With Arrival, his follow-up to last year’s stunning thriller Sicario, Villeneuve unleashes a powerful, surprising moving sci-fi that offers blockbuster spectacle and small-but devastating drama.
Based on familiar genre tropes, Arrival opens as twelve identical ‘shells (read: spaceships) land in random places on Earth. What is their purpose? That’s what linguist Louise (Amy Adams) wants to know as the government (represented by an unremarkable Forest Whitaker) pairs her up with physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) to communicate with the visitors, Close Encounters-style. During her first meeting with the aliens (huge, spidery creatures nicknamed Abbott and Costello), Louise discovers they communicate using cryptic, inky patterns, and has to quickly uncover their meaning. While the world goes into meltdown (Villeneuve crafts a realistic alien invasion in which people loot and riot, religious fanatics assume the rapture, and political powers prepare a nuclear attack) and the government work to decipher the codes, Louise begins to experience visions of both the aliens and the daughter she lost at a young age.
Though narratively complex, Eric Heisserer’s detailed, vivid screenplay helps us get in the mindsight of Louise and Ian as they solve the seemingly impossible puzzle. It helps that Arrival has obvious reference points; 2001: A Space Odyssey’s hazard suits and epic scale; Contact’s intelligent take on extraterrestrials; and, most interestingly, the low key domestic drama of Interstellar. Like that film, Arrival knows the spectacle and scale is pointless without sympathetic characters, and Villeneuve has a terrific lead to carry the film. Amy Adams is consistently good in almost everything (this year’s Nocturnal Animals not withstanding), but Arrival might be her best performance since her breakthrough turn in Junebug. From her ambiguous early scenes to her excitement at communicating with the aliens to the disturbing scenes after she first begins to understand the language (the aliens literally get in her mind, in a terrifying shot stolen from Villeneuve’s own Enemy), Adams is superb, helped by some sparky chemistry from Renner.
Villeneuve is aware that Arrival is a blockbuster at heart, treating us to numerous visually striking set pieces. The opening, in which Louise slowly realises something huge is happening around her, is eerily quiet, reminiscent of 28 Days Later, while the gravity-defying first encounter is breathtaking. However, the scale of the film can be a hindrance, especially during a late act twist involving rogue soldiers and a ticking clock; while reasonably tense and enjoyable, it’s too broad and generic for a film as unique as Arrival. While aiming to thrill, these scenes are actually fairly pedestrian compared to the thrill of each new revelation and breakthrough in the procedural.
Where Villeneuve really surprises is in the low-key, earthbound scenes of Adams and her young daughter that fade in and out, haunting the film like a literal spectre. Beautifully filmed by Bradford Young, these small moments have the Earthy, textual feel of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Arrival isn’t quite as bold as that film, but it’s certainly the most spiritual blockbuster you’ll see all year.
Despite a few generic elements that hamper the film’s middle act, Arrival is still a terrific achievement. Those looking for a blockbuster will find their jaws dropping at the sheer scale of the first encounter, but Arrival is so much more than a sci-fi spectacle; tackling huge themes of time, grief, and regret whilst simultaneously crafting a clever, realistic alien invasion takes an incredible amount of skill, but Villeneuve pulls it off. Between this and Sicario, he’s proving himself to be one of the decade’s finest directors.
By Harry J. Ford
Follow Ford On Film on twitter: @Ford_On_Film
Like Ford On Film on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FordOnFilm/