Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Arrival in its most basic concept is a story of Alien ships arriving on Earth. Twelve of them to be precise, dotted around various different locations. It focuses on the ever more frantic attempts of two scientists, one a linguistic expert, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the other, an Astro physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), in their attempts to communicate with two large Alien creatures, before the worlds military declares all out war. Thankfully, at the heart of this sci-fi drama, is a considerably more complicated movie. Language is the key focus here, not the war or violent struggle for supremacy with galactic overlords that we normally see in films within this genre. It’s a wonderfully introspective look at humanity, how it deals with grief, compassion and most importantly communication.
Amy Adams, the standout performer in the film, delivers a confident, impressive performance as the linguistic professor tasked with the unenviable challenge of deciphering the alien language of two ‘Heptapod’, other worldly creatures, that seem resemble a cross between ‘Thing’ from the Addams Family and an Octopus. Louise has been asked to seek the answer to a simple question from the military, headed up by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker): What do you want? It doesn’t take her long to understand that written communication is required, with the Whale like vernacular proving impossible to translate. After a few visits with the otherworldly beings, she even manages to partly decipher their complex, inky circle, writing style. As both she and Ian face a race against time to convey the crucial question to the aliens, we see glimpses at the wider worlds growing uneasiness at the situation. With various news reports around the world flashing up on tv screens, providing regular updates on the ongoings of China, Russia and Pakistan. All of whom seem ready to nuke the visitors on their doorsteps at a moments notice throughout.
Louise is not short on emotional depth either. “I used to think this was the beginning of your story” we hear her narrate at the beginning of the film, whilst several visions of her young daughter, who sadly dies in her late teens play out. These visions reoccur, becoming more regular as her work aboard the shell gathers pace. These prove to be absolutely vital to the story and the key to finally transcribing the alien calligraphy. Adams never resorts to overacting in these delicate scenes, instead settling on using subtle expressions and body language to convey her mood and feelings perfectly. Her characters emotional conflict during these moments creates a deep undercurrent in the film, helping to steer it through a middle act that is often on the verge of lagging.
Bradford Young’s visuals are on point and absolutely spectacular. The black obelisk, shell of a ship is gargantuan in size, as it darts upward from the ground, though never actually touching it, every bit unnatural looking in stark contrast to the natural land that surrounds it, seemingly for miles. The first time it’s revealed is a thing of beauty, as the helicopter carrying the team to the site slips out from the fog that seems to cling to the air. The inside shots of the shell are not neglected either. Whether it be the equally foggy domain of the ‘Heptapods’, the beautiful inked rings they project onto the invisible barrier or the smooth, black alien interior of the walls or floor. It looks every bit an extraterrestrial vessel.
Also, how could I possibly finish talking about cinematography on this film without mentioning the gravity flipping ninety degrees as the team of scientists climb in for the first time? Young’s work on this only further increases my excitement for the forthcoming Han Solo standalone, which will see him apply his outstanding talents to the world of Star Wars. The brilliant visuals are equalled by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wonderful score, which really brings an eerie sense of trepidation to the early encounters in the film and an equally powerful, mellower hit of sadness at the end.
And speaking of endings. The film has been described as ‘thinking persons sci-fi’ and given the slow, deliberate pace it takes throughout, not to mention Villeneuve’s penchant for gradually releasing information to his viewers, it really would be hard to disagree with such an assertion. Arrival has a rather major twist in the final act, which I’d prefer to leave unspoilt, it truly should be experienced in the moment to be fully appreciated.
What I will say is that the ‘eureka’ moment is not too dissimilar in style to Christoper Nolan’s Interstellar. It’s a better film than Interstellar though, succeeding where the former failed in being at once epic, and yet also introspective and intimate. We hear Adam’s uttering the prophetic words “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment of it”. Bringing up the conclusion to the film, with Max Richter’s goosebump inducing music On the Nature of Daylight playing sombrely in the background. It’s a profoundly powerful and moving end to what is an excellent film.