Denis Villeneuve’s latest cinematic offering, Arrival begins with twelve alien vessels landing at various points all over the world and linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited to assist in communication efforts with the alien visitors and to find out just why they have arrived. But while the team works to decipher their language, the rest of the world grows increasingly paranoid and suspicious and Banks must discover the truth soon, before the world powers decide to take offensive action.
Arrival is clearly a film with a smart, interesting script and, as with Sicario and Prisoners, it takes its time to put all of the pieces together and it all comes together well by the end. In particular, the intricacies and difficulties of translating a simple sentence is fascinating, well thought out and the whole film constantly makes you think, providing an interesting puzzle to be solved. As someone who has trouble “switching off” during a film anyway, I certainly didn’t mind engaging my brain and attempting to keep up with the story. However, there were a few moments where I got a bit lost and during a sequence in the third act, I was practically dizzy with confusion, worrying that it would all end with no clear resolution. While it eventually ends satisfyingly, effectively putting all the pieces together, Arrival is definitely a film that requires a second watch.
The film carries a very strong message about the need for peace and world cooperation, more relevant than ever in this day and age, and ultimately the film does a great job exploring the issues of human weakness and our suspicious, destructive tendencies: Arrival may be a sci-fi film, but it is fundamentally all about humanity. The film also doesn’t take itself too seriously as it makes a few jokes along the way.
Amy Adams is a very capable lead and she effectively conveys a strong sense of passion and determination for the task at hand, not stopping until the puzzle is solved and the visitors are understood. She is also compelling in scenes where she slowly begins to lose her mind, through sleep deprivation and the gargantuan task at hand, and the scenes involving her daughter are very well played. Additionally, Forest Whitaker is a suitably authoritative presence and Jeremy Renner possibly gets his greatest role yet as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, showing a definite sense of maturity and getting to break further away from Hawkeye. Or maybe it’s just those glasses that he wears, which give the appearance of maturity . . !
For the film’s score, Villeneuve regular Jóhann Jóhannsson returns and delivers yet another fascinating musical accompaniment. There is a most noticeable use of a low plucking of a double bass (or something else entirely, I’m no musician!), first introduced when the team enters the alien craft and is reintroduced at various points throughout the film; it is a fascinating element of the score and very effectively builds up tension and suspense. In addition, during the grand Sicario-esque aerial shot, where we properly see the craft for the first time, the accompanying piece of music is a dirge (courtesy of cellos I think – again, not a musician!), which immediately made me think of whale song and more specifically, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. On the whole, the score is indeed effective, it holds our interest and the Villeneuve/Jóhannsson partnership is clearly a wonderful thing!
The special effects in this film are used sparingly but effectively; the designs of the alien craft and the “heptapods” themselves are excellent and it is wonderful to see that, where certain films go overboard with CGI and ridiculously extravagant visuals, the effects of this film are grounded and appealing. The film hits its stride when the team enters “the shell” and the associated effects, including a playful use of Inception style gravity bending, are excellent.
In terms of similar films, I would say that Arrival shares certain similarities to Interstellar (the film is essentially a more compact, toned down version) and it also reminded me a great deal of “Darmok” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, dealing with seemingly impossible communication with an alien species. The film is also aesthetically similar to Sicario (I know, I keep bringing that up!).
I know that there is already a lot of positive buzz surrounding Arrival and that after the screening I went to, the Twitterverse was lit up with glowing reviews, calling this “the sci-fi film of our generation”, one of the very best. I don’t doubt that many will indeed be blown away by the film but while I have no problems with it, I can’t say that it exactly bowled me over. This seems to be the case with the other Villeneuve films that I’ve seen: I mean, I know a lot of people LOVE Sicario, a lot of people LOVE Prisoners and most will LOVE Arrival but while I definitely appreciate these films, I haven’t fallen in love with them as others have. I continue to think of Villeneuve as a reliable director, having a good eye for scripts, a good ear for music and a remarkable grasp of film direction but so far, he has yet to truly “wow me”.
But I still trust him to handle Blade Runner!
A smart, thoughtful, grounded sci-fi film with an exquisite score and compelling visuals.
★ ★ ★ ★