From the start, Arrival seems like a run-of-the-mill, Emmerich-style invasion movie; but very quickly that all changes.
The film pivots on the big ‘reveal’ scene of the giant alien spaceships (which have clear and no doubt deliberate resemblances to 2001’s monoliths). In this beautifully crafted panoramic shot, it is the eerie, haunting soundtrack that takes your breath away; a preternatural whale-song-like score, that again, is no doubt deliberate given the film’s focus on the beauties of esoteric language. The scene goes on to set the tone for what is Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious, and quite wonderful sci-fi masterpiece.
The film tells the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a specialist in linguistics asked by the military to attempt to converse with the aliens. She is accompanied by theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they try to crack the code of the aliens’ language. Spaceships have landed all over the world, and other countries attempts’ at conversing with the enigmatic extra-terrestrials breakdown, and so Banks is in a race against time to uncover the aliens’ intentions before Russia and China start military action.
The first thing to say is that the film does feel cold, but calculatingly so. The visuals are clean, concise and 2001-esque. Kubrick’s classic is a clear touchstone, but Villeneuve has created a very concise visual landscape that nods to 2001 (like all intelligent sci-fi films should do), but brings in his own stunning, visual symmetry and geometric precision. Lingering camera shots and slow pans (accompanied by the quiet brilliant score by Jóhann Jóhannsson) and sparse dialogue allow the main thrust of the film to come to the fore; namely deciphering the complexities of non-linear language.
It is genuinely claustrophobic at times, and the supporting cast of dry, inhumane and robotic army generals and government officials serves to increase the richness of Banks and Donnelly as the main protagonists. Speaking of which, Amy Adams is quietly commanding in her role as the human anchor to the film, and Renner ably supports her with his finely-tuned flirtatious charm.
It’s a film that doesn’t shy away from the intellectual themes; and the concept of language and its inherent non-linear complexities is not an easy one to translate to cinema. But Villeneuve manages to pull this off with a great deal of verve and style. The book the film is based on, ‘Story of your Life’ was a genre-defining piece, but the film’s adaptation also has clear parallels with some other pioneers of sci-fi, namely China Miéville’s book Embassytown, and oddly, I couldn’t shake an old Outer Limits episode ‘Trial by Fire’ from my mind…
The moments of peril do seem a little forced, and the common trope of the United States good, China bad seemed implanted by over-zealous Hollywood executives. And to be honest, I did see the film’s ‘twist’ coming a mile off. But that didn’t detract from a film that spoke to important themes of love, life, fate and global geopolitics through the prism of the wonders and fantastic potentials of non-linear, non-verbal communication.
It’s one of the year’s best film’s, certainly the finest sci-fi offering of 2016. It doesn’t have the pomp or heart-wrenching sentimentality of Interstellar, but it is no less magisterial in its ambitions and effective in its story-telling.
That Film Doctor