Arrival Brings Exciting New Life To High Concept Sci-Fi

Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker Running Time: 116 mins

Arrival is the kind of science fiction film you always hope for but rarely get. It is intelligent, moving and thought provoking; filled with grand ideas and epic imagery. At the risk of overselling it, it is the best sci-fi film of the year; perhaps even the best in recent memory. Based on the novel The Story of your Life by Eric Heisserer, Arrival is a decidedly human story – one that is thankfully confident and content enough with its ideas that it resists the temptation to devolve into mindless CGI spectacle.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a highly accredited professor of linguistics who lost her daughter to cancer some years previously. Memories of their time together weigh heavy on her mind. When huge mysterious black vessels descend from the sky, landing at random locations around the globe, Louise is approached by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Weber wants her to help the US government translate the otherworldly language of the vessels occupants. She agrees on the condition that she be allowed to interact with the creatures in person. Simply listening to recordings will not be enough if they are to fully understand each other. And so Louise is whisked away to the site of the US landing along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Together the two of them must attempt to communicate with these alien creatures and determine their true intentions before worldwide tensions escalate.

In terms of plot it would almost be a disservice to explain any further. This is really one of those films that, the less you know going in the better.

Acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), whose previous films have been captivating but somewhat flawed, gives us by far his best work yet. Evoking the likes of Kubrick and Spielberg while still very much retaining his own style, Villeneuve’s passion for the material is clear. He treats it with great respect; offering up plenty of unique ideas and inventive set pieces, as well as some truly awe inspiring imagery with the help of cinematographer Bradford Young.

It will be interesting to see what audiences-at-large make of a film that’s maybe not quite what they’re expecting. While the premise of ominous alien ships appearing around the globe has been dealt with in films like Independence Day, Arrival is not your average alien invasion blockbuster. It has a deeper and more contemplative tone. The film moves at a pace that is measured and confident, allowing us time to fully absorb the mind-blowing nature of the events on display and their impact on the film’s characters, but it never drags. Each scene is always moving the story forward in compelling ways.

While Villeneuve doesn’t shy away from showing us the alien creatures, or exploring their nature, the film is far more interested in exploring the human condition through themes of connection, experience, memory, and the importance of language. The film’s focus on linguistics and communication is fascinating and tends towards a far more positive and hopeful message for humanity than most films of its kind. Military strength and posturing are frowned upon. The film has no love for guns and warfare. Language, despite the barriers it presents, may be our greatest asset.

If any of this is making the film sound overly intellectual or boring, it’s not. Like Interstellar before it, the themes and ideas in Arrival are all there just under the surface, for anyone who wants to explore them. For those who don’t, the story is exciting enough on it’s own. Taken at face value the film remains compelling throughout. It should also be noted that, unlike Interstellar, this film manages to pull off some of its trickier plot points and emotional elements to much greater effect. That it does so while successfully incorporating it’s many themes is one of the Arrival‘s greatest strengths.

Amy Adams plays her role to perfection. Her character’s drive and intensity are clear, but Adams sells it in an understated way. She is quiet and commanding. Louise Banks has a strong, well meaning desire to connect with and understand these bizarre creatures. Adams let’s us see how Louise’s emotional investment takes it’s toll, while never going so far as to make us feel like she has lost her grip. Jeremy Renner holds up well as the only other real lead character. While none of his scenes are particularly remarkable he comes across as suitably likeable and supportive. Sharing most of his screen time with Adams, the two build a good sense of chemistry with each other.

The haunting musical score from Villenuves frequent collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is superb, and perfectly compliments the otherworldly visuals.

If there were any complaints to be made it’s that the alien beings’ appearance seems a little underwhelming at first (although at this stage it’s hard to create anything that hasn’t been seen before), and certain scenes may feel a little overly sentimental to some. But these are very minor issues in an otherwise stunning film. Anyone who might have been worried about the quality or necessity of Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel should rest a little easier after this.

It’s not often a film comes along that can have such a profound impact on it’s viewer. Arrival is a sci-fi film for the ages, joining such classics as Solaris, Contact, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It may not boast the sound and fury of today’s standard action packed genre fare, but that should be seen as a welcome relief. Those who go in with an open mind are unlikely to leave disappointed.

Arrival is released in cinemas on November 11th.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

About Kelan O'Reilly

An early addition to the Film In Dublin team. Kelan is a writer and musician living in Dublin. He has what some might call an unhealthy obsession with all things film related; others would likely agree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *