Arrival manages to be a film about aliens while not being a film about aliens at all.
It is very hard to pin down this new film by the hugely acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario and Prisoners). Is it science-fiction? Is it drama? It is very clearly not The Martian (sharp, witty, incredibly technical in its execution), and it is the furthest thing from Star Trek or Star Wars. But however you try to categorise it, it is undeniable that Arrival is an experience that should not be missed.
The film is based on a short story called “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang and follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams – visceral and powerful like always), a linguistics professor who is called upon when twelve mysterious spaceships appear around the world. Like in most films about extra-terrestrials, the military takes control of the situation and Louise is taken by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker with an interesting accent) to Montana, where one of these spaceships has landed. There, she meets a physicist by the name of Ian Donnelly (portrayed with much needed lightness and heart by Jeremy Renner) and the two are tasked with studying the aliens who have travelled with the spaceship and finding out their purpose here on earth.
Arrival proves that no director does suspense quite like Villeneuve. This is part of the reason why the theme of child-kidnapping could be explored in such a breathtaking way in Prisoners despite the plot being somewhat predictable. As Lousie and Ian begin to get to grips with their absurd and terrifying job, the audience is brought along on the journey in a personal and poetic way. Villeneuve uses everything at his disposal – sound, scale, scope – and turns tension into an almost tangible thing. We do not even see the spaceship until Louise sees it for the first time in the flesh when she touches down in Montana. The characters’ interactions with the aliens are also deftly done that they were able to draw gasps and shrieks from the audience in my cinema. We are simply with Louise and Ian in that space, seeing and communicating with the aliens in real time.
Like in his previous films, Villeneuve is a master at making the gory and the heaviness beautiful and addictive to the point that we can’t look away. (In danger of repeating myself, go watch Sicario.) Don’t get me wrong. His films aren’t for everyone. They require your undivided attention and the greatest challenge for the average movie-goer might be sticking with it until it pays off. Some people will complain that certain scenes drag on for way too long. But I am willing to bet that there’s a huge chance that you’d already be invested in the story by the time Arrival starts hurtling towards its thrilling conclusion. Amy Adams is a big part of this allure. Her performance is incredibly strong, and every fleeting emotion her character experiences is expressed with the utmost delicacy and precision. It is hard to understand what else she can do to turn her five Oscar nominations into a win. After all, it feels like she has done everything she possibly can (and more) since she got that first nomination in Junebug.
In the end, Arrival handles the science fiction genre with surprising nonchalance. The grand twist, when it comes, does not depend on the grandiose-nature of the science, but rather on the emotional wrecking ball it swings at our protagonist. It is, in many ways, the most powerful and relevant piece of cinema Villeneuve has made. Communication, the film seems to argue, is the cornerstone of civilisation and we are only stronger when we are banded together. But just when we feel like this positive message is the final punch, the film throws another curve ball at us. Time and life are messy, complicated things, and Arrival’s ending juxtaposes both the beauty and the pain of our human choices so brilliantly that its final moments will stay with you for far longer than you’d like them to.
RATING: 4.5/5 stars.