These days, my forays to a multiplex to see a film in its natural habitat are few and far between, and usually limited to a triumvirate of franchises (James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars) on largely nostalgic grounds. Trips to the cinema outside that are exceptional, and for films I similarly hope to be exceptional in and of themselves. Looking back, my last non-franchise theatrical outing was Ex Machina in January 2015 and it didn’t disappoint. It certainly sets the bar high for Arrival, which opened in cinemas this week and had me duly paying my money at the local Odeon after reading uniformly excellent reviews.
Arrival is the kind of film that simply can’t be described: to try to summarise its storyline would be a truly terrible thing, since it must be seen to be properly experienced. To put it in the simplest and most abstract terms, it’s the story of linguist Dr Louise Banks who is called upon by the military to lead a team trying to establish a dialogue with a mysterious spacecraft that has shown up over Montana, one of 12 such UFOs that have arrived on Earth. Unfortunately no one thought to pack a universal translator and Banks is faced with the impossible task of trying to converse with a lifeform that shares none of our common cultural or language touchstones. As the process drags on, frustrations on both sides build to the point where increasing suspicion and misunderstanding threaten a catastrophic outcome.
While the early section of the film shows global media news coverage of the arrival of the huge spaceships hovering over locations around the world, Arrival proves to be the very antithesis of Independence Day which has a similar opening. In the 1996 film, the aliens immediately make it expressly clear that they are here to exterminate the human race, which leads directly to an all-action CGI battle; whereas in Arrival, the problem is that there is no such clarity to the answer to the question ‘Why are you here?’ Before Banks even knows how ask the question she has to find some way of talking on a much more rudimentary level with the newcomers. Unlike Close Encounters of the Third Kind which uses music as a lingua franca shortcut, Arrival immerses itself in the hard graft of the process and we learn a lot about the fascinating science of linguistics as a result. Banks explains the importance and philosophy of what she’s doing every step of the way, and also explains how language affects our fundamental view of the world and vice verse (known formally as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.)
No matter how absorbingly this is portrayed in the film, the wider theme of Arrival isn’t merely the dry academic study of linguistics. Rather it’s about the basics of communication and understanding, and the importance of overcoming barriers in order to share what’s important. It’s when communications start to break down that misapprehensions build and the situation grows desperately dangerous. Given the depressing worldwide geopolitical developments of 2016, it’s very welcome to have a film whose basic message is that we need to talk and truly listen to one another even when – indeed, especially when – our beliefs and world views are profoundly at odds.
Lying beyond all these cerebral concerns is a very human and emotional story centred on Banks that gradually emerges as the most important element of all, and which prevents the film from living in a cold and sterile intellectual space. This ‘touch-feely’ side could put off people who want an exercise in pure science fiction, but its presence is no mere add-on and rather forms the very heart of the larger discussion of what it means to be human and how this basic sense of our very being could be profoundly and irrevocably changed by any future engagement with alien species. In many ways this makes Arrival reminiscent of the 1997 film Contact starring Jodie Foster. Based on a novel by Carl Sagan (a personal hero of mine), Contact has often been unfairly dismissed as the story of a woman who goes to great lengths just to walk on the beach one last time with her dead father, but it is in fact so much more – and incidentally shares many plot beats in common with Arrival.
It all makes Arrival a quiet, absorbing, fascinating, thought-provoking and overall confidently compelling film. There’s sustained tension throughout, but almost no ‘action’ in the conventional sense; the nearest the film comes to it is cut abruptly short and occurs mostly off-screen. It’s as though the movie is consciously making the point that Arrival is simply Not That Sort Of Film, thank you very much. Anyone wanting cheap thrills and laser battles can go elsewhere and stay safely tucked up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the world of Transformers or indeed mired in the depths of the recent belated ID4 sequel if that’s their sort of thing. Go into Arrival expecting anything along those lines and you will be disappointed and more than likely bored: this is a film for people who turn up with their eyes open and their minds switched on, willing to work at embracing the story matter rather than being spoon-fed like a toddler. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – a film whose reputation has taken an unfair beating since its original release in 2014 – has more in the way of action set pieces woven around its sci-fi high concept, albeit in an admittedly fragmented and borderline confusing screenplay compared with the more coherent and single-minded Arrival. It would be most unfortunate if that intentional stillness ends up hurting Arrival’s box office reception outside a grown-up core genre audience.
The film – powerfully written by Eric Heisserer from the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang – is to a large extent a single character affair told almost exclusively from the point of view of Banks, in a quite extraordinarily authentic and multi-layered performance by Amy Adams. It’s an accepted fact that science fiction films don’t win Academy Awards outside the technical categories, but if there is any justice in the world then that taboo should be totally discarded at the next Oscars because I don’t think I’ve seen any screen performance by an actress that comes close to what Adams does here. Actually, precious few male actors in the history of cinema could come within touching distance either.
Adams carries the entire film, and the rest of the cast appear very much in supporting performances. Foremost among them is Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, an astrophysicist paired with Banks in the designated first contact team whom we initially assume will be macho-antagonistic toward her but who actually quickly becomes her closest and most attuned colleague. The pair are watched over by Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber and Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA Agent Halpern who have their own agendas and who by virtue of their jobs bring a more cynical, suspicious and paranoid view to the situation.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film looks lovely – the FX sequences of the shell-like spaceships floating impossibly in midair are particularly well-executed and are simultaneously both beautiful and threatening. Also especially impressive is the sound of the film which is truly unearthly and haunting, and wonderfully augmented by the music from Jóhann Jóhannsson. It all bodes very well indeed for Villeneuve and Jóhannsson’s next science fiction collaboration, the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049.
Ultimately then, Arrival didn’t disappoint and I’m very pleased indeed to have been lured out to see it on the big screen. That said, it’s perhaps a little too reliant on the sort of previous genre outings mentioned above (from 2001: A Space Odyssey to CE3K, Contact, Independence Day and Interstellar and even Ex Machina) to be truly regarded as ground-breaking. It has a tendency to bury (melo)drama in favour of the intended pure inspirational message of its central themes, preferring to play safe where something like the TV mini-series Torchwood: Children of Earth – with which it shares a few visual elements – was altogether braver if darker. But then that’s not what Arrival is trying to do; instead, what it does set out to do it succeeds in achieving admirably.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Arrival is on general release in cinemas in the UK. It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2017, probably around Easter.