Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma.
For the most part science fiction movies tend to fall into different camps – there are the rollicking space adventures like Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, and Independence Day, featuring intergalactic battles with alien creatures; the out and out futuristic action yarns like Total Recall, Blade Runner, etc; or more intelligent and cerebral offerings that try to deal with the concept of intelligent life in the universe, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Martian, etc. Based on the award winning novella Story Of Your Life written by Ted Chiang, Arrival is an ambitious film that falls in the latter camp. But this film is not to be confused with David Twohy’s 1996 sci-fi drama The Arrival, which starred Charlie Sheen.
Arrival is a slow moving film and more intelligent sci-fi that has a lot of layers and deals with some weighty themes. On the surface it deals with aliens that have come to Earth, although apparently without the usual hostile intentions. No familiar landmarks are destroyed here. Rather the film explores the best and worst of mankind through our relationship and interaction with another civilization, albeit one from outer space. Surprisingly, the film has been written by Eric Heisserer, a writer who is better known for his horror films like The Thing remake and the recent Lights Out, etc.
Twelve black oval pods arrive on the Earth and they hover about a metre off the ground around the world. The governments are unsure of the aliens’ intentions. The US army approaches linguist and world renowned translator Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try and communicate with the aliens who have landed in Montana to find whether their intentions are peaceful or not. She is still grieving over the death of her daughter. Also on board to help is astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, from The Hurt Locker, etc).
The aliens look vaguely like extra terrestrial octopi and Brooks and Donnelly dub them Abbott and Costello. But they seem fairly patient as it takes 28 days before they can finally communicate with them, and there are no overt hostile moves. The world itself reacts with mass hysteria, global panic, looting, riots, while the media report, dramatising the situation. Meanwhile China begins to get more militant in its approach while other countries shut down communication altogether. The race against time element lends a touch of suspense to the film.
As with Spielberg’s classic sci-fi film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind the scientists have to try to find a way to communicate with the aliens. In Close Encounters the breakthrough came with music, here it is smoke signals of a kind and drawings. Arrival also delivers a message about the countries of the world working together and cooperating in the name of bettering humanity and ensuring the future of the planet. Ten special effects companies have worked on the visuals, but the special effects and CGI here are unobtrusive and serve the material rather than overwhelm it. Carlos Huante’s design for the creatures gives them a strange, surreal and otherworldly quality. The film also plays around with concepts of time and space, and will leave many scratching their heads.
Arrival is the fifth film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, but it is not as compelling nor as accessible as either Prisoners or his war on drugs thriller Sicario, which was my film of the year for 2015. Villeneuve is an intelligent filmmaker and this is a thoughtful and atmospheric meditation on alien intelligence and communication rather like the classic 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still than a slam bang alien invasion action thriller.
Adams and Renner worked together in American Hustle and they have a great chemistry here that elevates the material. Adams has an intelligence and strength that shapes her character, but her personal demons also lend an air of vulnerability and fragility. She brings a tremendous amount of emotional substance and heart to the material. Renner has recently been cast in big budget action films like The Avengers, but here he plays against type delivering a more a more low key performance. However, one can sense that there is a lot of restrained energy within his character here, and that Renner wants to do something a bit more physical. Forest Whitaker lends his formidable presence to the film through his performance as Colonel Weber, who is charged with trying to communicate with the aliens, and he also brings gravitas to the role.
The film has been shot by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year, etc), who gives the material a beautiful surface, and whose lensing of the intimate flashback sequences gives the film the look and feel of a latter day Terrence Malick drama. Johan Johannsson’s intense but intimate instrumental score further enhances the mood.