Arrival - Review: Out of This world!
For some reason when I answer the phone at work, some people think I’m called Steven.... no seriously. I don’t know how you get from David to Steven but somehow, people are making the journey so often it’s practically a freeway. I guess sometimes people just see and hear what they want to, and that’s even when they’re speaking the same language. When the language barriers go up, we go from projecting words into the unknown and fill it with our own emotions. We think someone sounds intimidating because we’re nervous or that they’re insulting us because we’re paranoid about being mocked. So how does that evolve when dealing with an alien language? If we did receive a message, we wouldn’t be looking for a Google translation. We’d be looking for an excuse to start welcoming them with open arms or cracking open those launch codes because our emotions will be nothing but joy or fear and opinions constantly swayed in either direction. It’s something that becomes the focus in what feels like 2016's science fiction film masterpiece, Arrival.
12 unknown large spacecraft touch down across the planet. While some are clamouring for war, it’s up to the team of linguist Louise (Amy Adams – Enchanted, Big Eyes), mathematician Ian (Jeremy Renner – Marvel, Mission Impossible) and Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker – Southpaw, Rogue One) to convince the world they’ve come in peace before we’re all in pieces.
Now this is far from the first film with an alien translation premise (take Contact for example) but it feels like the first film of its kind to really balance intelligence of subject matter with entertainment. Its concept is familiar yet its approach and execution is original, thought-provoking and masterfully told. The areas of developing communication you’d assume as boring are genuinely made interesting thanks to a combination of Eric Heisserer’s witty and engaging script along with superb delivery from Amy Adams. In one brilliant scene, she effortlessly explains how the problem is not asking the key question but the progressive steps required to understand the question. At some points, it becomes a lecture but it never feels like one. It’s the cool alternative teacher that’s figured out to teach their kids without them realising it. It’s an incredibly smart take on a first contact story (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) with just enough mystery to maintain intrigue without going overboard. At times, the narrative even gets very non-linear yet director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) ensures it reads smoothly by fixing things heavily around Louise’s perspective. It predominantly evolves into a story less about first contact than humans reacting (and jumping to conclusions about) first contact. So much of the mass public reactions and smaller team-based discussions feel very believable, from the Government getting condemned for not immediately having all the answers to the domino effect of more aggressive measures. It’s 7 billion people at least quietly terrified with a comparative few being pressured into solving the unsolvable, and that frequently makes it thrilling. Louise is even endeared to us through the early goings by being the only person not panicking or even that bothered about the arrivals. It has poignant messages of social reflection to like impertinence of global communication and cooperation. In fact, a large section of film plays out as a bigger staged version of Peter Capaldi’s epic war speech from last year’s Zygon Inversion.
Despite their perceived simplicity (from trailers and such,) the visuals of this film are utterly breathtaking. There’s a Godzilla style teasing delay before properly showing the first colossal “Shell” object on screen but my God, it is worth the wait! The key approaching shot is monolithic and awe-inspiring as the structure dwarfs the nearby Rocky Mountains as mist rolls off the foothills into the encampment valley like celestial roadies pumping in dry ice. Things only get better as the team make their way inside with dizzying directional gravity shots. Even the alien language itself is visually fascinating, based around circular palindrome pictograms. Not only do they give the film a distinct and feel but a visual sense of wonder as the mysterious Heptapod creatures draw them out of ink in the air. The only mild let down is the creatures themselves, which underwhelm a little. The intent is clear, to deliberately any clichés or comparisons to other well known franchises but for a lot of the film they just look like big gray Thing’s from The Adams Family.
Amy Adams’ lead performance is just stunning. Her opening pledge of personal tragedy rings warning bells of mimicking Sandra Bullock in Gravity but these quickly dissipate once things get going, she quickly sets herself apart primarily becoming likeable through her intelligence and odd insubordination. There is no doubt Adams’ Louise is the centre of this film and the key support players show a crucial understanding of this by making the most of their given moments before returning to the background. Jeremy Renner is primarily present so Adams’ has someone to bounce her feelings off, but he is terrific in this capacity and gets in some excellent moments of humour too. Similarly, Forrest Whitaker is there to be the opposing viewpoint of security concerns in the face of scientific progress and he’s completely on point being a mixture strict and supportive.
Arrival is a firm Film of the Year candidate and whole heartedly recommended all viewers unless their looking for something mind numbing/easy going. It’s Interstellar on Earth with an outstanding and perfectly culminating ending instead of black hole silliness. It’s worth catching on the big screen for the scale of its visuals. I know you’re excited about Harry Potter and Star Wars but please do let this Arrival pass you by.