Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is that rare beast: an awe-inspiring sci-fi that delivers both spectacle and smarts
Crafting science-fiction films that are both smart and thrilling isn’t easy. Just ask Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) or Ridley Scott (Prometheus), to name three recent examples of filmmakers who’ve crumpled under their film’s existential weight. With Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's shoulders prove far more sturdy.
Not only does he ravish us with goosebump-inducing atmosphere and spectacle, his film’s nifty allegory about the need for vastly different cultures to communicate effectively makes this the smartest, most politically astute piece of alien invasion cinema since Gareth Edwards’ 2009 breakthrough Monsters.
Like in that film, the human race is up against giant squid from outer space, who are dubbed Heptapods due to their seven tentacles. At the beginning of the movie a dozen pairs of them have appeared on Earth overnight, arriving in elegant space ships that look like skyscraper-dwarfing grains of rice, which effortlessly float 20ft from the Earth’s surface. Like granite obelisks, they stand sentinel over seemingly random nations across the globe, although theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) surmises that the locations could relate to areas of low lightning activity or where Sheena Easton had some brief popularity in the 80s.
The world, unsurprisingly, goes into meltdown. Across America there are riots, looting and mass suicides. Russia and China have their nukes trained on the alien ships, their trigger figures itching. The voice of sanity within this storm is master linguist Louise Banks (Adams), who's shipped in by Forest Whitaker’s no-nonsense Colonel to help communicate with the extraterrestrials. “You made quick work of those insurgent videos,” he says of Louise’s last freelance translation commission with the US department of defence. “You made quick work of those insurgents,” she replies.
The film is at its absolute best during Louise’s first visit aboard the alien ship, with Villeneuve conjuring up some thrillingly disquieting images for the encounter. Entering through a trapdoor that the Heptapods open every 18 hours, the Québécois director shows a Spielbergian instinct for inducing awe in his characters and viewers. In films like Prisoners and Sicario, Villeneuve displayed technical precision but little humanity. Thanks to Adams' deeply felt performance, Arrival overflows with the latter.
Louise's task is straightforward enough: determine the Heptopods’ purpose on Earth. Communication proves difficult, however, as their language takes the form of inky circles that look like the rings coffee cups leave on napkins, with each wrinkle and splodge a nuance to be decoded, save mistaking a benevolent nature for malevolent intentions. Conversing with the 11 other nations with alien ships in their backyards proves even more problematic, however.
These creatures could be ready to gift mankind the answers to our energy problems or the secrets of time travel, but the belligerent military men surrounding Louise are eager to join China on the offensive. The film's sly suggestion is clear: perhaps it takes a brilliant, steadfast and capable woman to temper the US’s macho bullshit and get it talking to the world again. Doesn’t sound like science fiction anymore, right?
Arrival had it UK premiere at LFF
Arrival is released 10 Nov by Entertainment One http://theskinny.co.uk/film