Arrival sets itself up with an elevator pitch: what if, on the day you felt most isolated, you discover we are not alone in the universe? Academic linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is shown to be unaffected by appearance of mysterious objects that hover around the globe looking like gigantic exclamation points. Banks dozes in front of televisions showing 24-hour news channels reporting looting, cult suicides, pilgrimages to UFO sites and world leaders scrambling to identify the visitors as a friend or foe.
Director, Denis Villeneuve, and screenwriter, Eric Heisserer (adapting The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang), use the appearance of the visitors as a focal event humbling the human race and creating a vacuum, as is the case with most real-life world events, where people are drawn towards loved ones, worship or chaos. And it’s this emotional charge to the science-fiction elements of Arrival that give it beautiful gravitas to how our experience on Earth isn’t marked by the linear constraints of time – a construct – but our ability to live in each moment. Arrival exemplifies the power of love and sorrow to work as markers for our existence; every single emotional beat is worth it; the ticking clock is an illusion and Villeneuve bends time to tell an exquisite tale.
Banks remains emotionally neutral in the beginning and becomes an essential member of a U.S. military team (led by Forrest Whitaker) tasked with trying to communicate with the beings who offer a short window of time every 24-hours where humans are invited onboard their ship to talk. Like a series of awkward first dates, the humans haven’t had any luck getting a response from their guests; even the appearance of the beings has driven top academics crazy as they are shown carted off into ambulances, screaming.
Banks and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) make the first breakthrough for ‘team America’ but their time to properly converse starts to dwindle as other nations – Arrival loves to ramp up the fear with China and Russia shown as rogue countries – move to declare war against the visitors.
Arrival astounds with Villeneuve’s ability to instill a sense of sci-fi wonder each time the aliens are in play while still allowing time to completely invest in Banks’ story. The camera sticks close to the ground most of the time and Villeneuve holds his shots on the reactions of actors in the tradition of ‘The Spielberg Face’. Once inside the ship, the gravity-defying sequence showing the pathway to the meeting room warrants the whisper of ‘cool’ under your breath while the whole alien craft itself feels like it’s made from the same eerie and out of this world material as the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The aliens themselves have a cthulhu vibe and the design is a refreshing break from the bug-like humanoid ‘greys’ that dominate close encounter stories.
Villeneuve explores how the alien presence shapes each character in Arrival, and while the characterisations of the side-characters is bland with military types and Renner’s flat science guy act, Adams’ Banks conveys the humanity at play in a story. Villeneuve and Heisserer let the major reveals to play out beautifully with tear busting montages while tampering with a linear storytelling approach. The execution couples with the film’s themes to bust the mirage of time in a spectacular way.
A few moments are overplayed to up the stakes with repetition, mainly in our propensity for war and the nauseating number of times ‘China’ is mentioned as the film’s chief villain, floating around in constant news reports interrupting the film. Overriding this agitating element is the sub-textual peace flag waving around as nations make-up and break-up over how to communicate with the aliens. What Arrival loses in plotting conventions, it makes up for in optimism – a Carl Sagan and Gene Roddenberry level of hopefulness.
So often, sci-fi gets lost in the stars or wrapped up in clever concepts it can’t properly comprehend but Arrival manages to transcend its genre elements and get to the heart of our existence.
Cam Williams – Follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW