ON IN CINEMAS
This adaptation of a short story by Ted Chiang features Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a Montana-based university linguistics lecturer who remembers the tragedy of her daughter succumbing to a rare disease during adolescence. One day while taking a class one of the studenst asks her to turn on the video screen and watch the news. She discovers there is an international event unfolding involving twelve UFOs that have arrived at different locations throughout the world - one of them in Montana. A resultant panic is spreading far and wide, riots are taking place throughout the US, the state’s population is fleeing in droves and China is contemplating military action - which will result in some other countries following suit.
When she’s back home, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) from the US military pays her a visit. He asks her to translate a dictaphone recording from the aliens. She tells him that such a translation would be impossible without going to visit them in person - but Weber insists that this is not an option, and leaves to select an alternative expert from another university. One night later a helicopter suddenly lands in Louise’s yard, and Weber takes her straight to the site with a physics expert named Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) accompanying them. A military base has been setup near the UFO, with satellite links to experts at the other sites worldwide so that they can share information on their findings.
After a fraught first encounter with the strange spacecraft and its inhabitants (two alien lifeforms whom they call “Heptapods” and decide to christen Abbott and Costello) they start to find a way to decipher their communications. However the rising panic amongst Earth’s population (fed by social media and a number of extremist cranks airing their views via YouTube), military forces with their fingers hovering over the buttons, and one particularly worrying communication received from the Heptapods things are reaching breaking point.
It’s the second of two films released in UK cinemas within the space of a week that star Amy Adams, and like the other one (Nocturnal Animals) it’s an intelligent and visually stylish affair with a highly unconventional narrative flow and outcome. It is the better of the two by virtue of it having a heart to match its brains, and easily stands as one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
There are several reasons for my love of this film. Firstly, Amy Adams. Not because she’s visually beautiful (which she is) but because her performance, as with Nocturnal Animals, projects so much depth with a considerable grace and restraint. Her performance as Louise blends wide-eyed fascination and determination in a way that makes it easy for an audience to admire - but she also has a sense of human frailty that brings a genuine emotional and storytelling gravity. Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whittaker are fine in their roles, but in the acting department it’s definitely Amy’s show.
Secondly, it’s a stunning piece of pure cinema. The first close encounter with the alien craft is truly spectacular, not just due to the impressive special effects but also because of the sense of pure awe and fear that director Denis Villeneuve instills in the moment. The helicopter tracking shot with our protagonists closing in on the fog-shrouded vessel - with Johann Johannson’s bowels-of-the-earth score humming away in the background - is as spine-tinglingly great as the opening of Bladerunner was back in 1982 (it’s encouraging that Villeneuve is currently attached to the sequel for that film). The first scene inside the craft with its unique, dizzying gravity and giddying use of a dolly zoom as they ascend to meet the alien lifeforms is terrifying. As for the first encounter with the aliens themselves… well… I don’t want to spoil it. Later scenes may not be quite as showy but there’s still a purity and meditative grace to the aliens’ visual communication method (where circles assume a major significance) and a genuine mastery of sustained suspense as the global stakes increase exponentially.
Thirdly, while Arrival is, when all is said and done, a fantasy, the linguistic and scientific theories here feel intelligently and convincingly worked through. Reportedly Villeneuve consulted renowned scientist and tech innovator Stephen Wolfram and his son Christopher Wolfram during the production to ensure this was all true to life. The result of all this extra homework is a movie that feels like it credits its viewers with a degree of intelligence even when it is only showing us trivial details.
Forthly, as with all of the best intelligent sci-fi, Arrival comments as much on our times as it does on its own fantastical constructs. Rather than these new arrivals being seen with curiosity and intrigue it seems that most of the planet views them with suspicion and paranoia. Surrounding the central story of Louise’s communication breakthroughs with these beings are many montages and newsreel vignettes depicting the wildfire spread of pure, media-stoked fear. They add a sense of impetus and urgency to the piece, but also portray humankind in our modern form as an excessively jumpy, reactive and inward-looking species. The interconnectedness we are gifted with by modern technology is all too frequently used as a tool to spread fear rather than one for its ideal purpose: communicating and helping each other to improve our wellbeing.
Fifthly, the film’s final twist. While I don’t want to reveal too much, I can say that it turns the viewers’ perception of the film entirely on its head. It is also commendable in that it imbues a sense of empowerment that remains consistent with the overall message that fear and brutality aren’t the answer; communication and understanding are.
I strongly suspect that Arrival will go down in history as one of those all-time science fiction classics alongside the likes of 2001 and Bladerunner. Yes, it’s really that good.
Runtime: 116 mins
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Script: Eric Heisserer, based on a short story by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg