UK Release Date: 10th November 2016
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien
Synopsis: When mysterious alien pods land on Earth, the military recruits a linguist to find out what these creatures are and what their intentions are for the planet, forced to cooperate across international lines.
Over the last few years, Denis Villeneuve has been establishing himself as one of the most consistently interesting directors working in cinema. Films like Prisoners and Sicario marked him out as capable of crafting dark, human thrillers, whilst Enemy shone a spotlight on his penchant for mind-bending concepts. Those two conceits dovetail neatly together to form Arrival, which is a deeply human, deeply mature sci-fi movie that warps reality and alters the perception of its audience for a tale of first contact with real brains.
Highly regarded linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the US Army when a series of alien pods land at various locations around the world. Banks teams with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to communicate with the aliens and find out whether they are a threat to humanity. Meanwhile, other countries are communicating with their own pods and this causes a diplomatic scramble when multiple interpretations of the aliens’ messages are unearthed and Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) threatens military action.
Like all of the best sci-fi, it’s clear from the first moments of Arrival that the film is only tangentially about aliens. Eric Heisserer’s script is something far more complex, focusing on the consequences of human actions and the importance of working for the collective good rather than narrow self-interest. Horror specialist Heisserer constructed a complete lack of character depth in his earlier script for Lights Out, but Arrival is a real feat of scriptwriting. The story, adapted from novella Story of Your Life, is an elegant, intelligent construction that takes lofty, complex concepts and gives them real simplicity.
Much of the film’s legwork is done by Amy Adams, in what might be the best performance of her already impressive career. The story is told entirely through the lens of her expressive face as she gets to grips with a language so powerful and so complex that it consumes her existence. Under pressure from her military supervisors to decode something beyond human comprehension, Adams is tremendous at conveying the gradual loosening of Banks’ grip on reality. Jeremy Renner has a lot less to do, but he’s likeable in support and a worthy foil for Adams in explaining the story to the audience.
As the mysteries and revelations of Arrival begin to unfold, it becomes clear that this is a story about humanity and its lack of desire to cooperate. The film suggests that the insular mentality of various nation states and the fear of war trumps the human race’s ability to perceive the greater good. It takes scientists and academics, without the simplistic interests of the armed forces behind them, to ultimately discover what’s happening. As the narrative evolves structurally in its final stages, it falls to Adams to sell the impact of the events, which she does with real gravitas. An Oscar nod is almost a certainty.
Unfortunately, it’s in these final stages that the film ultimately becomes snagged on its one fatal flaw. In focusing on the script’s complexity and the clinical world of science, Arrival shortchanges its audience on an emotional level. It’s a film that asks its audience to feel for its characters, but never provides them with the tools to create those feelings. Villeneuve shoots for the fences with an ambitious and fiercely clever movie that, whilst showcasing remarkable visual invention and a bracingly important moral message, never quite connects on the emotional level for which it reaches.
Pop or Poop?
Ideas-based sci-fi is often something of an endangered species, but Denis Villeneuve has produced a remarkable genre effort with Arrival. Amy Adams is on top form and the film communicates its complex ideas with clarity and simplicity, just as it should do. This level of sophistication bodes well for Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner.
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