Now that’s a proper introduction.
Denis Villenevue has become known for his intense, intelligent films and Arrival is another example of what makes him one of the more fascinating directors working in today’s Hollywood system.
Opening with a scene that recalls Pixar’s Up, the plot shifts into gear when twelve strange, elliptical spacecraft appear at throughout the world (one, amusingly, over Cornwall, UK). Why are they here and what do they want?
The appearance of the alien acts as a lightning rod for civil unrest around the world as countries grapple with the realisation of ‘other’ life in the universe. The U.S Military brings in specialist help, recruiting Amy Adams linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, to help make contact.
Every eighteen hours a door in the spacecraft opens allowing a crew to board and start a dialogue with the aliens (or heptapods, as the film dubs them). While this is happening, other countries are pursuing their own agendas. China and Russia’s hostile stance creates an uncertainty that threatens to engulf the world.
It makes for a tense two hours or so, as the fate of the world appears to rest on being able to strike up a dialogue with these foreign species. The film adopts a tone that’s part Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Robert Zemeckis’s Contact and to reveal more would spoil the experience – it’s best to go in as cold as possible – but untangling the threads and the ways connect makes Arrival a mesmerising experience.
Grounded by a thoughtful and subtle Amy Adams performance, Arrival is quiet and understated, and in Bradford Young’s cinematography there are some startling moments of great beauty. In tackling a visitation in such a grounded and realistic way, it allows the audience to contemplate the meaning of our existence in the face of a foreign species. How would society react when faced with such a situation? Would it simple fall apart? Arrival makes that feeling startlingly real, especially in the aftermath of the alien’s arrival where the film has eerie echoes of 9/11.
Jeremy Renner provides steady support as physicist Ian Donelly who’s part of the group trying to decipher why the heptapods arrived. Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber is initially the kind of character a lesser film would turn into an obstacle for the main character, but Weber is driven by the need to achieve results and avert a potentially disastrous outcome. Michael Stulhbarg’s agent Halpern, like plenty of CIA bureaucrats, is there to bring in red tape and make the situation worse.
At its heart this is a film about communication, the ways in which we do and the need to make contact. A breakdown in communication leads the world to the precipice of disaster. One scene involves a number of screens shutting and acts as one of the film’s scarier moments.
It’s not often that Hollywood produces a film, let alone one that’s a sci-fi, that’s this contemplative and intelligent, but Arrival is very much that film. Anchored by Amy Adams, some startlingly beautiful visuals and a narrative that unfolds in unexpected ways; it’s easily one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of its year.