It’s funny what a second viewing can do. A few weeks ago, on a cold, damp, blustery Monday night I went to a preview screening of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. I didn’t enjoy it. Now, perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps it was the time of the screening. It was nine at night, I’d worked a full day and I felt tired. Perhaps it was because the film itself isn’t exactly what you would call action-packed and requires your undivided attention. There could be many other reasons why the film didn’t connect with me first time around, but I think it’s simpler than that. I can’t say I was tired or ill or bogged down or anything. Turns out, I’m just an idiot. Arrival is such an adventurous, intelligent and insightful piece of filmmaking and I’d be a fool to think otherwise.
The film opens with brilliant linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and a series of flashbacks with her daughter. We see her as a little girl, an adolescent, and tragically as a teenager killed by an unspecified rare disease. We see how distraught Louise is and hear a voiceover talking about beginnings and endings. It is only much later we realise the significance of such words.
When twelve extra-terrestrial spacecraft appear across the Earth, Louise is recruited by US Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) to find out why they have come and what they want. Accompanied by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise makes contact with the two seven-limbed aliens which they call “heptapods” and Ian eventually nicknames them Abbott and Costello (perhaps a homage to the classic “Who’s on First Base” sketch).
The aliens use a written language of complicated circular symbols and as Louise becomes more and more proficient in the language, she begins to see images of herself with her daughter.
Now, I am not a scientist. I do not understand the mechanics of language or semantics. Nor have I read the short story by Ted Chaing that Arrival is based on, but I am aware that it is full of science, so with that in mind, screenwriter Eric Heisserer has made this unbelievably accessible to all. If someone like me can understand the technical aspects there is hope for all!
Another thing I appreciate about it is the design of the spacecraft. There is something definitively alien about the way they hang in mid-air and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerily visceral score reflects this.
The chemistry between Adams and Renner is magnetic, and the working relationship is completely believable. Renner keeps the reigns on his performance, He doesn’t turn up geek-o-meter to eleven as others may have done, and Adams’ expressive face is a joy to watch. It sounds stupid to even say this, but she isn’t looking at actual aliens (I know, but hear me out). This is all CGI or green-screen or other forms of special effects, or whatever you want to call it. It takes real acting ability to project your inner thoughts to an audience, without using words and there are not many better than Amy Adams. You completely believe she is in that situation and that is how you would be likely to react. She is also a strong central female character, of which we need many more.
The fundamental message of Arrival is a positive and uplifting one and I can only speak for myself, but it has come at exactly the right time. A time where communication and understanding is so vital. It’s the film I hoped and wanted it to be.
Back in 1982, Ridley Scott did a remarkable job of bringing Philip K. Dick’s words to the screen when he made Blade Runner. Not only was it completely accessible and believable, it’s production and sound design set a benchmark in science-fiction cinema. Villeneuve is currently directing the much-anticipated, long-awaited (any for many, feared) sequel, Blade Runner 2049. It will be almost impossible to live up to Scott’s vision, but with Villeneuve in the chair, there is hope. I think it’s in good hands.