FILM REVIEW: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve sets the scene for his thoughtful science fiction piece, Arrival, by utilising Max Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight.
It’s a piece that’s been much-used over the last few years for all manner of purposes, yet despite now being a tad over-familiar to our ears, it still manages to evoke an over-riding sense of melancholy.
Such a poignant atmosphere endures throughout Arrival, a film more in tune with the subtlety of Blade Runner than the in-your-face nonsense of the likes of Independence Day.
Interestingly, it’s Villeneuve that will sit in the director’s chair for the forthcoming, much anticipated Blade Runner sequel, and if Arrival is anything to go by, the signs are encouraging, but not without room for improvement.
Arrival poses a simple question: how would we react if ‘they’ made contact. More-over, what would we do if ‘they’ actually landed amongst us? Such a predicament befalls planet earth’s powers-that-be when twelve extra terrestrial vessels dock at twelve indeterminate points around the globe. One such vessel lands on the prairies of Montana, with the U.S military quick to mobilise troops and set up camp just a few hundred metres from this mysterious semi-oval-shaped craft.
Linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert in her field with prior translating experience for the military, is convinced by Colonel Weber of the U.S military (Forest Whitaker), to fly to Montana and lead an ambitious attempt to make contact with whatever it is that resides within the craft. Such tactics are consequently embraced worldwide in an attempt to keep relations peaceful. It’s an approach that’s in huge contrast to the public’s general panic and hysteria as they stock-pile supplies and head for the hills, no doubt foreseeing an imminent end-of-days scenario.
Accompanying Dr Banks in her task is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an expert mathematician.The pair of them will be very much under strict military control and supervision throughout.
Although understandably concerned for their own well-being, it’s Banks and Donnelly’s linguistic and scientific fascination with the project that underpins their enthusiastic approach to the task, yet there exists in their military chaperones a very tangible, underlying sense of mistrust and unease. Increasingly, Banks and Donnelly become all too aware that all of their best efforts could be undermined at any point through knee-jerk acts of military brute force.
As nation after nation begins to lose its nerve, convinced that the alien beings are intent upon some form of armageddon, it’s left to Dr. Banks, in a race against time – and going against military instructions – to prove that the extra terrestrials’ intentions are nothing but friendly.
Into all of this, Villeneuve weaves a story of loss and heartache.
Louise, at an earlier time in her life had experienced the loss of her daughter to illness; something that she has never been able to fully come to terms with, understandably, but somehow through her rapidly evolving understanding of the alien’s means of communication, she begins to re-experience the time she spent with her child through a sequence of flashbacks. Through this she makes a stunning discovery about the reason for the alien’s arrival, and even more startling, she learns about the true nature of time.
Arrival, much like Denis Villeneuve’s previous project, the very excellent Sicario, is a bit of a slow-burner which in itself is not a criticism, but there’s no escaping that Arrival feels slow. It’s a film built around a relatively simple concept, yet, is rather ambitious in its intentions to marry science-fiction with matters of the heart, bringing to mind Christopher Nolan’s similar aspirations with the bold but ultimately flawed, Interstellar.
On the positive side, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are very well cast and special effects are sparingly applied and used to very good effect. Abbott and Costello (Donnelly’s names for the pair of extra terrestrial heptapods that he and Banks attempt to communicate with), with their spidery, elephantine features, are revealed only through a sort of smokey white filter of fog; thus retaining a crucial element of mystery as to the true nature of their physical appearance. A good example of less being more, and typical of the director’s subtle approach.
Indeed, Villeneuve directs with minimal fuss, and although there are necessary token efforts to create suspenseful set-pieces, there’s little or no pandering to impatient audiences or to production companies for that matter. Arrival is, to all intents and purposes, a serious science fiction film and should be applauded for being just that. But it’s also a film that left me feeling that it hadn’t quite achieved what it set out to do, though it does make a good go of it, and I’ve found it difficult to pin point any one particular defining reason for this being the case.
That said, there are very few science fiction films capable of truly hitting the heights of say the aforementioned Ridley Scott classic, Blade Runner, or Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece, A.I, for example.
But that’s OK, not being an instant classic shouldn’t detract from the fact that Arrival is a bold attempt to make something original with significantly more depth, meaning and layers than your average sci-fi flick, and on that basis alone it’s more than worthy of your attention.
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