Director. Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: November 10th
‘What is your purpose on earth?’
This is the central question to which linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) seeks an answer in Arrival, as addressed to a pair of alien beings, aboard one of twelve mysterious structures which have suddenly appeared at a dozen geographically-arbitrary points on earth; though, when self-directed, this question may also give meaning to a personal tragedy in Banks’ own life. Working with a senior US Military Colonel (Whitaker) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), Banks is tasked with developing a common language with the new arrivals to discover what on earth they want before extremist, militaristic forces at the other landing sites can take potentially catastrophic, pre-emptive action against the alien structures.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who also helmed last year’s brilliant Sicario, presents what may be his most accessible and optimistic work to date; and certainly, the story of a brilliant, capable woman unifying disparate groups through communication, education and empathy in the face of reactionary cowboy diplomacy seems straight-up fantastic this week. Banks’ role as a linguistics professor offers seldom-seen but thoroughly fascinating perspective from which to tell a story about making extra-terrestrial contact, adding a rich, human layer to this kind of science-fiction. The heptapod language is a complicated fusion of visual and aural elements, which could even be interpreted as being about cinematic storytelling itself; Banks’ translation a metaphor for the pleasures and complexities of interpreting a film’s meaning — not to mention that the heptapods appear, at almost all times, behind a screen.
But even beyond this reading, Arrival is a familiar human story in an unfamiliar world, an ideal sci-fi narrative. The film draws on familiar science-fiction tropes and iconography in ways that might occasionally read as derivative, but Villeneuve’s aesthetic approach rejuvenates the subject matter. We can see this in the striking juxtaposition of the stark, monolithic alien ship and its terrestrial surroundings, be it in wide-open rural Montana or a frenzied urban labyrinth in Russia; or the abrupt temporal ruptures as Banks’ perspective shifts across space and time to comprehend that her own personal experience is only a small part of a much larger story, which is not unlike how Sicario develops. It’s also impressively well-paced, and as patient as its protagonist, easing us into the new world of the alien ship and slowly building rapport with its inhabitants, while also enticingly but efficiently, jumping around in time, intercutting Louise’s memories of her daughter with the ongoing narrative in a non-invasive and poignant way.
The supporting cast is fine, but largely unremarkable by comparison to leading lady Amy Adams. Not unlike her other current, but weaker, genre piece Nocturnal Animals, so much of Arrival’s emotional core is built on her performance, on how Villeneuve shapes the film around Banks’ view of the world and her interpretation of the strange alien language. On the occasions in which the film stumbles into silly sci-fi territory – and it does briefly, in the third act, with some clumsy dialogue and exposition – Adams’ total commitment to the role carries it over the bumps. Villeneuve sets the story up beautifully, but as with any successful science-fiction film, it needs a human anchor, and Adams grounds Arrival beautifully, allowing us all to hold steadily on.
Arrival is sensational, in every sense of the word, combining beautifully-composed images, soundscapes, and silences with an engaging and intelligent narrative driven by a stirring central performance. It’s the kind of film the world needs right now, a story of how rewarding it is to be understanding and sensitive to other beings and perspectives, told through high-concept, loosely-escapist sci-fi. Arrive at your local cinema in plenty of time to catch it.