Directed by Denis Villeneuve
From 11th November 2016
Reviewed by Nick Daly
Arrival arrives in cinemas at a rather timely occasion. While the population is in disarray over current world events, Arrival provides a welcome antidote by exhibiting not just escapism, but an alternate universe where humanity could actually unite.
The cause of this unthinkable movement is the appearance of twelve mysterious space crafts arriving at various locations across Earth. Linguistics professor Louise Banks, played with a subdued but effective naturalism by Amy Adams, is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications. It’s a refreshingly compelling concept; shedding light on a not often depicted subject and giving breadth and depth to an activity that would otherwise be a brief segment in other films of the genre.
Like Adams’ performance, the portrayal of events is flawless in its stark authenticity, unencumbered by any sense of melodrama as natural lighting casts a suitably dim shadow on the proceedings. It’s an approach that could seem overused or even slightly dull, but with today’s civilization becoming increasingly chaotic and unpredictable, and with each news report providing more shock and horror than any fictional work possibly could, the notion of alien contact in the worlds current state somehow becomes an enticing prospect.
It makes the eagerly-awaited reveal of the space crafts all the more spectacular, as the unfathomably huge extra terrestrial objects contrast rather beautifully with the realism, all the while aided by a powerfully ominous score, to produce a scene that’s a marvelous showcase of director Denis Villeneuve’s talent.
Much like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Arrival brazenly discusses scientific topics in a manner most films dare not. As Louise immerses herself in comprehending the alien’s intricate written language, the film adopts the theory of linguistic relativity (a belief that language affects the speakers cognitive thought process) that results in the introduction of mind-boggling concepts like non-linear time, evolving the plot from a standard but expertly executed alien invasion scenario into something in the realm of art-house cinema.
Another aspect that makes Arrival a similar beast to Interstellar is that it also, unfortunately, contains its most flawed attribute: an ill-conceived emotional core that threatens to derail the entire film.
The core in question is an interwoven subplot involving the relationship between Louise and her ill-fated daughter, who eventually succumbs to a rare disease. Apart from a prologue that depicts this in a manner that feels as mechanical as Louise’s linguistic discussions, fleeting scenes between the two are placed throughout purely to propel the plot as they aid Louise in her pursuit of discovering the alien’s purpose, with more attentiveness given to her communication with the aliens themselves and their magnificent scenes inside the space craft. “You know what I think? I think this all comes down to the two of us,” Louise says to her colleague Ian (Jeremy Remner) in one of the film’s attempts at sentiment. It’s a particularly forceful scene, jarringly conventional against the film’s distinct tone, that clearly depicts the mishandling of emotion and proving it to be Arrival’s weakest asset.
By the film’s culmination, the aforementioned subplot is propelled to the forefront, showcasing an ending sequence that desperately aims for poignancy while resolving its finely developed science fiction elements by practically dissolving them into a thin, somewhat empty melodrama.
Based on the 1998 short story by Ted Chiang, titled Story Of Your Life, Arrival’s source material is essentially a meditation on love and loss with a science fiction backdrop. However, it’s distorted in its transition to film, attaching dramatic plot points it’s incapable of resolving and favoring the backdrop in expense of losing its poetic nature. It’s a battle of two mediums with two contrasting ideas that can regrettably be felt on-screen.
Indeed, Arrival exhibits an alternate universe where humanity could unite, but perhaps not in the spectacular and cathartic we desire, or deserve. Maybe that very sentiment could be the next shocking news article, or if that idea fails to materialize, perhaps Villeneuve may grow from Arrival and realize his potential with his next project, a certain Blade Runner 2, to create truly masterly science fiction escapism.