Arrival is the next Science Fiction blockbuster on the block – or so I thought. Much in the same way that the trailer for Inception chose to focus on its more Hollywood elements: explosions, spectacle, conflict, so too the trailer for Arrival is something of a red-herring. Arrival is science fiction, but in the true sense: thoughtful, introspective, mind-bending and concerned with the future of human existence and how technology might influence that. Even the title is something of a double-meaning when we realize the hidden aspects of the narrative.
The most brilliant aspect of Arrival however is its personal, microcosmic approach. The metaphorical lens of Director Denis Villeneuve is almost relentlessly focused on Amy Adams’ Louise Banks, an expert in linguistics and translation summoned by a world-weary Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join a team attempting to ascertain what the purpose of the newly landed aliens is on Earth. This intimacy is what makes the film so engrossing as we tumble into Louise’s sometimes confusing and obsessive world, and slowly come to the dawning realization of a deeper meaning behind her disorientating memories.
Cinematically, Arrival is a breath of fresh air. With a glut of films in which every second is jam packed with one-liners or action sequences, Arrival stands out for its measured pace. It takes its time establishing Louise’ expertise followed by the arrival of 12 black, oval UFOs. It takes time giving us a shuddering build up to the first ‘face-to-face’ encounter with the heptopods, zooming in on the fear of donning a hazmat suit, the twisting-journey to their ship, the ascent into the black UFO which is so monolithic it looms like the dark tower out of Robert Browning’s enigmatic poem (from which Stephen King drew influence to create his series). There is a healthy amount of high-stakes intrigue in the plot as various countries play off against each other, competing to make progress with the communications. As well as more local tension between factions within the American team who see the aliens as a threat. This lends the film the urgency of a Thriller whilst never losing sight of the ideological core. Denis Villeneuve has learned from masterpieces such as District 9 in his use of documentaries and news footage to set the scene: just enough to provide a worldview picture, but never so much we are bombarded or lose sight of the individuals at the heart of the story.
The aliens are so well done, especially considering how often these days we are met with disappointing in-your-face CGI renderings: we see enough of them and enough remains hidden. They loosely resemble Old Ones from Lovecraft’s mythos, but there is also the hint of other shapes: human hands, silhouettes of people, octopi. They sit behind a glass wall within the confines of their earthen spaceship, which also bends gravity, offering some Interstellar style moments of dizzying physics. But though Arrival is clearly influenced by Interstellar, it differs in many key ways, enough to distinguish it and certainly remove any accusations of derivation.
Interstellar is grandiose, and I mean this in the best sense. It is about the fate of humanity, reaching out to the stars, a dark terrifying journey through space which echoes the odyssey of fabled mythological heroes. Cooper is something of an Odysseus: a flawed, rugged hero who has seen the wonders of the universe and returned a sane man. Arrival is more localized, but no less potent. As Louise Banks develops from her repeated encounters with the heptopods (the doorway in the ship opens every 18 hours), and she instigates several breakthroughs in their communication, we become more and more intrigued by the mysteries of this species, and more profoundly still, the mysteries of her. Her behavior, thoughts, feelings, memories all seem disjointed, strange, alien almost. We realize that a human being, another mind, can be just as much a hinterland to explore as another lifeform. Louise Banks is portrayed brilliantly by Adams; she turns in a spectacularly compelling performance, whilst never over-blowing it or allowing drama to overshadow nuance. Certainly she is unrecognizable from the Disney princess from Enchanted and demonstrates amazing range.
Jeremy Renner turns in a pretty decent performance as a scientist accompanying Amy Adams. It is refreshing to see him play a role that is more intellectual, rather than muscle. Whilst Adams certainly dominates as the more intriguing character, Renner’s Ian Donnelly is something of a straight-face against which Adams can offer contrast. The two have an interesting relationship and the understated dialogue between all the characters means that we never feel like we are trapped inside a trope. Eric Heisserer is certainly to be praised for his masterful adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, from which Arrival is based. For a film that is all about language, the script is never bombastic, always hyper-real, and captures the subtlety of real human interactions; this clever commentary on the nature of language itself never becomes ‘meta’ or self-praising in its fourth-wall-breaking.
There is a very, very big twist in Arrival which I don’t want to spoil for you, because it’s near perfectly executed. It neither spells it out nor leaves you in any ambiguous doubt about what you have been seeing. This twist is at once an awesome revelation, one that gave me chills and goosebumps, and one that ties into the deeper themes of the plot: the nature of time, how language can alter our perception of reality, the nature of memory, the nature of existence itself. I said that Arrival is true science fiction, and for anyone who likes the works of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, the great masters of literature that pushes the boundaries of understanding, Arrival is certainly a film you need to see, one worthy to stand alongside the great works.
As the ending moves into a beautiful and eerie circle, one that mirrors the cursive forms of the heptopod’s brain-rewiring language, I felt catharsis shudder through me. Not only does the twist operate on an intellectual level, satisfyingly explaining unresolved plot elements, but an emotional one, as we realize suddenly what this will mean for our heroine, and how it explains her suffering in the most perfect way. Quiet heroism comes to the forefront. Music, symbolic imagery, and wonderful performances all come together in an ending that is sure to leave you as it left me and everyone else in the cinema: silent, shell-shocked for the duration of the credits.
Review by Joseph Sale
You can read Joseph’s new short story ‘Soul Machina‘ here…
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