When the aliens show up in Arrival, it’s not with your typical invasion-movie bombast. The first sign of something unusual comes when a symphony of smartphone notifications ripples round a sparsely attended lecture by language professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
Attendees are alerted to the news story that’s about to dominate the globe: enormous, pebble-shaped spacecraft have arrived, and they’re hovering in the air at 12 random locations around Earth.
It’s a typically understated start to a super-smart sci-fi that’ll blow your mind and have you on the edge of your seat without recourse to explosions or souped-up fighter jets. Take note, Independence Day: Resurgence (opens in new tab)…
That it grips from its first moments is thanks in part to a superb opening montage, in which we’re introduced to Banks and the daughter she loses to illness; it’s a heartbreaking précis that plays like Up (opens in new tab)’s tearjerking opener. Banks now lives alone in a remote cabin, continuing her work as a language expert, clearly keeping most other humans at arm’s length.
She’s drawn into the larger story when Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits her for her language skills: turns out the alien pods open their gates for a small window of time every 18 hours, and the US government wants to send her onto the one floating above Montana, along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to start a dialogue with the extra-terrestrials on-board to find out why they’re here. Across Earth, other nations are plotting their own interactions with the ships.
A combination of language studies and global politics sounds dry, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
As the plot unfolds and the visitors’ motives begin to come into focus, director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario (opens in new tab)) ensures it all plays out with clockwork precision; even when the jargon gets a bit technical, it always manages to sound like it’s making sense (it helps that it’s frequently leavened with humour).
Banks summing up the difficulty in getting the ‘heptapod’ aliens to understand one simple sentence is a delight. It’s not easy to turn the creatures’ subtitles on: their language takes the form of inky black spores that form patterned circles. How do you clarify the distinction between a weapon and a tool with a species that talks in shapes? In this case, Google Translate won’t quite cut it.
Amy Adams is, as ever, superb, ensuring you believe the character’s heartache and authority, acting as the audience’s unpatronising entry point. It’s a strong month for Adams, who has another impressive turn in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, so expect her to add more Oscar nominations to her collection (of five) when awards season rolls round. Jeremy Renner provides sturdy support in a role that requires toning down the tough-guy Avengers act to pleasing effect, though this is very much Adams’ film.
The themes Arrival toys with get bigger and bigger – from language, to love, to the nature of time – but they’re handled with such dexterity that you won’t be struggling to keep up; it never scrambles your brain like the final act of Interstellar (opens in new tab). Villeneuve is clearly operating at the very top of his game. A lot of films have to make a choice between blowing your mind and melting your heart. Arrival doesn’t.
While it won’t be off-putting to those sceptical about sci-fi, the film contains plenty to delight genre fans. The gravity-shift boarding of the spacecraft recalls visuals from 2001: A Space Odyssey (opens in new tab). The alien creatures feel organic and believable, even if the CGI isn’t always perfect.
DP Bradford Young (stepping in for Villeneuve’s Prisoners (opens in new tab)/Sicario (opens in new tab)/Blade Runner sequel (opens in new tab) cinematographer Roger Deakins) elegantly captures the scale of the visiting craft and the claustrophobic corridors of the military basecamp at which Banks and Donnelly are stationed. Sparely used flashbacks have a haunting quality, and are given heart-stabbing heft by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s painfully poignant score.
Fascinating as it is to watch Banks and Donnelly’s developing interactions with the heptapods, the tension ratchets up as the 11 other sites grow antsy of waiting too long to uncover the meaning behind the arrival. Have they come to get us to work together, or to drive us apart?
Of particular concern is China’s military leader General Shang (Tzi Ma), who is itching to go on the offensive. Without hammering its message, Arrival’s advocacy for communication across all boundaries couldn’t feel more timely.
Like the best sci-fi, Arrival lodges itself in your head for days, and will be sparking conversations long after its moving denouement. That Villeneuve so seamlessly wrangles thought-provoking ideas with awe-inspiring visuals and a very human story bodes extremely well for his upcoming Blade Runner 2 (opens in new tab). Although following this means that sequel now has even more to live up to...