The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington tells us his thoughts on the latest intergalactic science-fiction film in his Arrival film review.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg
Plot: 12 identical shell-shaped alien spacecraft descend over different locations around Earth, throwing the world into disarray. At one such location in Montana, the US military calls linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) to decipher the extra-terrestrials’ language so that they can understand the purpose of their visit.
Some of the greatest films in science-fiction cinema are arguably those that require viewers to actively think about what is being told to them, amidst all the stunning spectacles the genre produces so well – just think of such masterpieces as Blade Runner or 2001. And yet, in modern filmmaking, it is becoming harder to incorporate thought-provoking themes without sliding into familiar generic territory (i.e. eye-popping visuals, incredible inventions, etc,). In that light, Arrival can be viewed as a complete miracle because it is a film that pays homage to its genre while also brilliantly subverting them to create a truly intelligent and emotional story.
Our guide for this journey is linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), undeniably the film’s most compelling character. One of the great strengths director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer play on is ensuring that the viewers seemingly watch the events unfold through her eyes, allowing her to share both her wonder and fixation on these visitors and what they want. We do not even get a first proper glimpse of their ships (shaped rather like the eggs from Alien, albeit flatter) until she does. Of course, Banks, like most heroes, has an emotional backstory, but Heisserer’s excellent screenplay uses this as a device in helping her understand the mysterious heptapods’ communication techniques by forcing her to remember those traumatic memories. There is an overarching fear of failure within her as she clashes with both military scepticism and the ghosts of her own past. It is these resonant themes that make her quest all the more personal and challenging for her and the viewer.
It helps too that Banks is portrayed by the very talented Amy Adams. Under Villeneuve’s confident and grounded direction, Adams’ magnificent performance successfully sells her character’s multi-layered inner struggles underneath her fierce intelligence and fascination. Even the sudden realisation of a distant memory is conveyed with a subtle expression of awareness, something awards season should definitely recognise. Meanwhile, having already successfully depicted a bleak drugs-ridden New Mexico in his thrilling Sicario, Villeneuve excels again in creating sombre landscapes by reflecting the Montana mountains as a symbol of the anxiety felt throughout Earth towards the alien ships. The visuals are incredible throughout; the ships look alarmingly real while the heptapods (a combination of squid, starfish and gnarled trees) have remarkably human characteristics, despite being largely shrouded behind a screen with thick mist.
This is what makes Arrival seem rather like a grown-up Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like the beloved 1970s classic, this film touches on themes of communication which seem very relevant to the modern world. Yet Banks and her fellow characters are treated as intelligent people who are extremely aware of the risks involved and the dangers of misunderstanding that can arise if proper communication is not taken with sensitivity and patience. Viewers are clearly asked to understand the same way and this is the satisfaction that they will gain upon seeing this amazing film, which may well become a science-fiction masterpiece.