There seems to have been something of a sci-fi Renaissance recently, with each year supplying a groundbreaking hallmark of the genre. 2013 was Gravity, a film with unrivalled effects, visually astounding and constantly breathtaking. 2014 was Interstellar, offering intense cinematic and emotional spectacle. And 2015 was The Martian, giving us an inspiring appraisal of the good of humanity. 2016, then, can only belong to Arrival, a film that serves as a cry for intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi, not needing to rely on bucketloads of CGI or showy futuristic lingo.
Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with the weight of the world thrust upon her when twelve egg-shaped UFOs carrying aliens appear, dotted seemingly at random across the planet: she must translate their dialect in order to discover the purpose of their arrival before the threat of military retaliation is fulfilled. Assisting her is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who’s devoted to Banks as much as he is to his job. Her unorthodox approach to the task at hand is garnering results, but growing distrust and paranoia spread across the research camp and various governing bodies altogether threaten to derail the mission entirely.
The film functions as both a metaphor for the growing separation and antagonism between the world as a whole, and a philosophical insight towards many ideas that if I were to reveal them to you, would spoil the movie’s emotional impact. It is not necessarily, however, an alien flick. The aliens in Arrival serve as a vehicle for the film’s integral themes. That’s not to say that their presence isn’t worthwhile, but that venturing into this film in want of a gun-ho alien quasi-horror wouldn’t fulfill expectations.
Denis Villeneuve’s take is much more intellectual – but this is to be expected from a director with such a mature filmography. His influence on Arrival isn’t as tangible as usual – he instead allows the film’s superb script, written by Eric Heisserer, and based on Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life, to prosper. It’s a wonderful script, made poignant and dramatic through the overbearing tension and uncertainty it creates, emphasised by the twisting narrative. Villeneuve’s role is to maintain these emotions, and he handles this incredibly effectively. Memories of Bank’s daughter, whom she lost to cancer, are intertwined in the story seamlessly, and he sustains the uncertainty behind both the unknown purpose of the aliens’ arrival, and their odd, potentially threatening behaviour.
Despite the less significant (though still just as important) role Villeneuve has to Arrival’s success, there’s still room for his directorial flourishes: he employs a visual trick, that was also used in one of his previous films, Enemy, to establish how entrenched Banks is in the alien language she’s trying to decipher. His record of creating visually interesting films doesn’t go amiss either; Roger Deakins may not be at the helm this time, but Bradford Young displays a keen eye for stunning visuals – a long take of clouds scrolling past the alien vessel during our first proper look at it is as beautiful as it is calculated. Slow pans of the ship’s surface during Banks’ introduction to its interior are particularly effective in conveying the alienness of the whole ordeal, and its power to overwhelm – which it indeed does, as we hear the diegetic sound of Banks’ heavy, stumbling breathing, amid Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning, otherworldly score. The film as a whole manages to overwhelm, and astound, not necessarily with spectacle as in Gravity and Interstellar, but simply with a sharp, powerful script.
Amy Adams herself is remarkable as Banks, conveying her utter confusion and determination beautifully; although each other actor delivers serviceable performances, this is a film that belongs to her, her character saturated with complex philosophical ideas about humanity and its intent. The film often hinges on Banks’ reaction to revelations, and Adams certainly delivers.
Jeremy Renner’s character’s bum-note of a final line aside, Arrival is a cerebral, imaginative, emotionally satisfying sci-fi that bears potent metaphysical concepts and a tour-de-force performance from Amy Adams. It’s a brilliant, brilliant addition to an ever-evolving genre. I can’t wait for 2017’s sci-fi showpiece, whatever it is…