It is perhaps fortuitous, or perfectly planned, that as a certain orange faced leader of the world looks to alienate countries against each that Arrival should, arrive. Because it’s rare you encounter a science fiction film based on how we communicate. On the surface that would appear to be a dull topic when you consider the planet nuking monsters of say Independence Day. But Arrival is a film that demands multiple viewings thanks to the way it engages your grey matter.
When a collection of UFOs scatter themselves around the globe no one knows what they want. Grieving the death of her daughter, linguistics experts Louise Banks – played by a wonderfully stoic Amy Adams – is called by the US military to help decipher the aliens’ language. Aided by mathematician Ian Donnelly – Jeremy Renner on the kind of charming form we haven’t seen in a long time – the pair make inroads into speaking with a species whose motivations are as cloudy as the atmosphere they occupy. But with other countries all trying to own approach the lines of communications between humans begin to fracture and threaten the aliens before Louise can make a breakthrough.
As with any great sci-fi, Arrival is a wonderful commentary on humanity and society as we know it. By elevating a situation to being outside our realms of understanding you exaggerate the reactions. Arrival does this in spades. On the one hand addressing what it means to be human, the importance of banding together as a species rather than continually thinking in tribal terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Meanwhile on a more intricate level it addresses the concept of loss, the film subtly touching on the Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief as Louise looks back on her late daughter’s life and how it impacted her.
All these ideas, themes and delicate plotting are handled with the deftest of touches by one of cinema’s most interesting directors of the era Denis Villeneuve. From its tranquil, haunting opening to visuals that immerse you and hypnotise you into the world of Arrival, Villeneuve continues to prove why he is one of the finest, purest directors on the planet right now. Aided by Bradford Young’s sumptuous cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s elegant score Arrival becomes a beautifully tragic dream.
There are elements that feel familiar. The communications with an unknown entity of James Cameron’s The Abyss, the scientific conundrum of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, the familiar gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – a film similar enough at parts to force the filmmakers to reconsider their ending once they had seen what Nolan did – and the existential musings of many an Andrei Tarkovsky film. That last one is of particular significance because it deals with Tarkovsky’s ideas in similar ways but makes them accessible to a mainstream audience.
One of the most intensely satisfying and intelligent films Hollywood has created in a long time. The film builds to a breathtaking crescendo to have you reeling at its tragic denouement. Watch Arrival, be floored by it, watch it again and then start a petition to have it viewed by every world leader on the planet.