Extraordinary, melancholic sci-fi.
Sci-fi is at its best when it makes us ponder what we see, whether it’s the Tesseract in Interstellar; the musical notes used in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; whatever the hell happened at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arrival nails this trait, taking the viewer on a journey of intrigue, discovery and wonder.
When 12 ominous aircrafts land on Earth, the world’s militaries need to understand if they are a threat. They look to linguistic professor Dr Louise Bank to try decipher their complex language, but the clock is ticking as world leaders become less reluctant to cooperate with ‘them’.
Denis Villeneuve, who directs the film, has a strong track record. Last year’s drug thriller Sicario showed his flair for the dark side, but it was Prisoners that made the man a star. A twist packed kidnap-thriller with perhaps Hugh Jackman’s finest ever performance (excluding Wolverine), it put the director on the map. Now he’s tried his hand at sci-fi, which although may have a familiar story, feels daringly unique whilst also feeling like signature Villeneuve.
The aliens themselves are a bizarre creation, taking more inspiration from a giant squid than the traditional Close Encounters extra-terrestrials. On first meeting, one would be forgiven for being a little scared. This could be down to us seeing everything through the perspective of Louise, so we don’t get to see anything till she does – hence the enhanced surprise.
The push to learn their language is thrilling considering the scenario; world leaders ready for global, interspecies warfare. That acts as a background dread builder to the linguistic struggle, which in itself is a magnificent feat. The writers have created a language – not just nonsensical jibberish, a real, complex symbolized language (no reward without effort eh?).
Who knew floating pebbles would be so mysterious? Design-wise, that’s what you’ll think about the UFOs, but their presence in the skies feels almost omnipotent. You can never make up your mind whether you consider them a threat, a speculation conflicted by District 9-like news reports of the “shells”.
Louise’s back-story and issues mean we don’t lean on the aliens the entire film. Amy Adams, who also stars in Nocturnal Animals, proves once again that versatility is no problem for her. Much of the film focuses on Louise’s reactions and thoughts. Like great sci-fi heroes, she is knowledgeable but can still make her linguistics comprehendible, and also her response to the arrival is one of curiosity rather than fear; a welcoming, more realistic turn.
By Louise’s side is Jeremy Renner, a theoretical physician who instead of arguing with her like you’d expect, works with her without problem, kicking away the pesky cliché and getting on with what matters. There’s also Forest Whitaker, a cold Military officer that holds both respect and reluctance towards Louise’s work. Every cast member works excellently to portray this world to us, that never feels far-fetched or botched for thrills.
There’s a message to be heard in Arrival. It may be about the potential threat of aliens, but it’s the humans we need to worry about. We watch as communication spirals out of control, and countries pick their sides in the ultimate decision of whether or not to attack. One character says it himself: “In a world with no single leader, it’s impossible to speak to one of us”. It exposes the flawed attitudes in the communication, adding a sharp, political edge (if it were Trump he’d probably blow the ships out the sky without thought).
The film as a whole is absolutely beautiful. Each shot of the shell we focus on is intimidating and wondrous, never feeling like a waste of time. It’s a strange sensation – it’s both thrilling and melancholic in its presentation. Any issues you could possibly have are forgotten in awe of the events.
To sum it up…
Arrival is without a doubt, a modern classic. Villeneuve’s stunning, impeccable direction deserves some attention come awards season. This is sci-fi that’ll stay with you for a long time.
Rating: PURE DYNAMITE!
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Author: Cameron Frew