Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
While the sci-fi films that dominate the box office and attract the most attention tend to be rollicking space adventures like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, at its heart science fiction is a genre about ideas. At its best, science fiction uses fantastic, unfamiliar scenarios to discuss relevant issues and relatable ideas. Up and coming Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Arrival – based on Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” – uses the story of aliens arriving on Earth to explore notions of communication, memory and time.
Twelve 1,500 foot tall spacecrafts shaped like giant coffee beans have settled at seemingly random locations around the globe. Every 18 hours a door at the bottom opens enabling us to go in and make contact. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor of linguistics, and a very good one if her large office and waterfront home are anything to go by. Her expertise in language and translation have previously been called upon by the military, so when Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) requires an expert to try and decipher the language of the aliens – called ‘heptapods’ because of their seven tentacle-like legs – she is top of his list. Banks and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are flown to rural Montana (a refreshing change from the New York-centricism of most of these stories) where they head up the team that endeavours to open the lines of communication and determine the intentions of these visitors.
“What is your purpose on Earth?” That is the question the military have brought Louise in to ask the aliens. But as she explains, much to the frustration of the increasingly impatient Weber, there are numerous steps that have to be taken before she can ask that question with any confidence in their ability to understand and appropriately respond. Arrival is similar in tone to Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is a methodical, procedural account of first contact, focusing in on steps in the process which those alien encounter movies which play out more like disaster movies would choose to skip over. But far from being dry, these interactions are enthralling, even thrilling.
Villeneuve, coming off the back of his breakout hit Sicario, shows himself to be right at home working in the sci-fi genre, which is exciting news for all those who are waiting to see what he can do with the upcoming sequel to Blade Runner. Where often this sort of heady science-fiction can come across as cold, Arrival manages to be both intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant, matching its thought provoking concepts with a warm, human story. Louise has lost a young daughter to cancer, and the process of unlocking communication with the heptapods requires her to reflect on moments with her daughter. As such the processes of discovery and grief become intertwined. Amy Adams, who will push for her sixth Oscar nomination, gives a performance that while muted has great emotional clarity.
While the themes of communication, memory and time are universal, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer also manage to tell a story that is very relevant to this moment. Responding to the arrival of the mysterious space crafts we see all too familiar glimpses of the media hysteria and internet paranoia which fuel fear and distrust of things different and unknown. With the spacecrafts touching down in nations which don’t have a history of willingly cooperating and sharing information, the desperation to communicate with the heptapods is contrasted by humanity’s unwillingness to communicate with each other. With each ship only offering partial information it is only through unity, rather than division and competition, that humanity can progress.
While not a film of flash and spectacle, Arrival is none the less visually striking. Patrice Vermette’s production design is wonderful, from the spacecrafts to the heptapods – who are sufficiently different to most cinematic representations of aliens – to their written language, which looks like a series of beautiful coffee mug rings.
Arrival sets things up and then pays them off. There are a number of twists which continually reframe what you think you know, and the true cleverness of Heisserer’s screenplay only becoming apparent towards the end. It is a film of ideas, of depth and introspection rather than spectacle and flash. Arrival is not afraid to be intelligent, doesn’t talk down to its audience and will leave you buzzing.
Review by Duncan McLean
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