When 12 alien spacecraft descend into the Earth’s atmosphere, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the US military to work with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in finding a means of communicating with the visitors. When relations between one of the ships and the Chinese government breaks down, Banks and Donnelly’s mission turns into a race against time.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an exceptional film; an intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction drama boasting a smart screenplay, beautiful visuals, a strong musical soundtrack and uniformly tremendous performances. In terms of science fiction cinema, it is that rare creature: a science fiction film properly based around speculative ideas of science, technology, and their effects of humanity.
First contact stories are hardly unique in Hollywood, having been told from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) through to Contact (1996), but Arrival stands out because its alien visitors really do feel inexplicable and alien. The heptapods – named because of their octopus-like seven-limbed appearance – don’t speak in anything that sounds like intelligible sounds. Their written language is akin to a coffee cup stain squirted into the air with ink. Viewers coming to Arrival expecting an action-packed thrill ride will be crushingly disappointed: this is a science fiction story that is in part about the science of learning to communicate. The thrills are there, but they are about provoking thought rather than stimulating adrenaline. Discovering what the aliens want becomes a less important element of the film as it goes on, replacing by questions over what their words mean and how they actually think and perceive the universe around them. This is the sort of intellectual puzzle you find in prose literature, not on the movie screen.
It is fascinating, then, that such an intellectual story gets told in such a sense-rich fashion. The sound is tremendous, as is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s musical score. The visuals, by cinematographer Bradford Young, are immediately iconic and absolutely stunning to behold. The film’s non-linear storytelling style, which feels at first like a strange affectation, gradually becomes integral to the plot. Head-spinning linguistics aside, Arrival has a relatively straightforward and simple plot, and it is the complex and stylish manner in which the story is told that makes it such a rich viewing experience. It wisely uses the intellectual questions as a backdrop to tell a powerful human story – one that only falls into place in the film’s final minutes, and which point it becomes staggeringly powerful.
Amy Adams is excellent as Louise. She dominates the film, presenting her character’s intelligence, fear and sorrow in small and subtle ways. She is well supported by Forest Whitaker, as a sympathetic but direct US army colonel, and particularly by Jeremy Renner as the physicist Ian Donnelly. I have never been a particularly keen fan of Renner’s acting; this is by far the best work I have seen him do. Also of note is Tzi Ma in a small but critical role of Shang, a Chinese general whose experience with the heptapods is sharply different to Louise’s. He performs his role with a steady dignity that really makes Shang stand out when it counts.
Between this and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve has really marked himself out as one of the world’s great science fiction directors. It would be a terrible shame if he would stop at just two; thankfully he is currently developing a new film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, so with luck his winning run on SF cinema will continue.