From Mars Attacks! to War of the Worlds, cinema history is littered with science fiction films questioning what would happen if aliens attacked. Arrival tries to answer the much more unusual hypothetical. Namely: ‘If aliens arrive but don’t attack, how could we possibly communicate with them?’
Such a task is laid at the feet of world-renowned language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Called upon by the US Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the US make contact with the one enormous alien spacecraft that had landed on American soil. Over the globe, another eleven pods have touched down in different nations, including, significantly, China. The pods allow humans to enter and interact with the aliens aboard, but making sense of their ‘speech’ seems at first an impossible proposition. Day by day, Louise, along with scientist Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner), works to find a way to ascertain the visitors’ purpose on earth, before heightening national tensions push the situation to the brink of global violence.
“Big ideas are communicated clearly, and – crucially – very cinematically”
Villeneuve has struck up a particularly hot run of cinematic form in the last few years, following up Prisoners with the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, psycho-thriller Enemy, and then last year, the gripping, poetic Sicario. With Arrival, he has further consolidated his reputation as one of the most intelligent and versatile American filmmakers working today. While the film doesn’t quite match the visual heights achieved by the peerless Roger Deakins on Prisoners and Sicario, Arrival still looks pretty great. It is almost impossible to conceive of an original look for extra-terrestrials, but these creations are memorable and sensibly rendered.
The script, by Eric Heisserer, is pacey and clever. Big ideas are communicated clearly, and – crucially – very cinematically. There is an earnest emphasis on the philosophical importance of language. Communication is more than a plot device, and the inherent richness to be found in dissecting and abstracting the possibilities of language is given wonderfully generous shrift. The tension throughout builds to a pretty satisfying conclusion, albeit with a twist that could prove divisive.
The characters are perhaps the film’s biggest flaw. Adams gives a committed, convincing performance, but her character is ultimately something of an enigma. Renner works well in the flirtatious sidekick role, the kind of functional but insubstantial character work he has honed for years in the Avengers franchise. Whitaker’s career still hasn’t come close to the peak he reached in The Last King of Scotland, for which he won an Oscar, (or, for my money, his spectacular, magnetic performance throughout season 5 of The Shield), but Arrival has him playing it frustratingly safe as your standard-issue truculent military pencil-pusher. There is certainly no dearth of acting talent; filling out the cast we have Michael Stuhlbarg, whose ordinarily absorbing presence is egregiously applied to a character of little personality or purpose.
In the end, however, none of that really matters. It is, at its heart, a film not of characters, but of ideas. It demonstrates completely uncharacteristic restraint for a big-budget sci-fi, content in the knowledge that the ideas it explores are big enough, and cinematic enough, to leave the audience transfixed by the sheer daring of its concepts.
Image: Denis Villeneuve