Arrival is a marvellous piece of pure sci-fi, a smart and intriguing film that beautifully finds a small, intimate canvas on which to paint its big ideas. Dan Stephens takes a closer look at one of 2016’s best films…
If we didn’t know it already, low-fi sci-fi Arrival puts filmmaker Denis Villeneuve in the same “big” league as ultra-consistent stylist Christopher Nolan. The pair have conspired to offer an alternative type of mainstream Hollywood entertainment that dares to defy convention and expectation through the careful massaging of high concept cinematic attractions.
It’s a consistency that has seen audience favourites such as The Dark Knight, Inception and The Prestige (from Nolan) and Sicario, Prisoners and now Arrival (from Villeneuve) offer big box office potential sans piecemeal melodrama so often the default gear of production line cinema. From origins in the arthouse (Following and Polytechnique) to reaching bigger audiences with indie hits (Memento and Incendies), the rise of Nolan and Villeneuve has plenty in common.
Not least their subversion of expectation and courage to ask audiences to think for themselves. Now both have tackled pure science-fiction with the smarts, inclination and imagination to put discovery at the heart of their narrative. But like all the best sci-fi films, the journey into new territory brings with it more questions than answers and both filmmakers are at pains to let the viewer make up his or her mind.
Arrival sees Amy Adams’ Louise Banks become the USA’s ambassador to an alien species recently arrived on earth. Her standing as a linguistics whizz sees her rather thrust into the job by an American government eager to get a head start on communications ahead of other countries around the world who have their own alien visitors. As Louise makes some progress, national and international tensions rise as suspicion, fear, political motivation and religious doctrine threaten to derail a seemingly peaceful “first contact”.
Villeneuve is adept at enticement through his expert handling of the mechanics of drama. He’s also brilliant at twisting plot development to divert away from conventional expectation. His talent allows him to do this in a number of ways; be it the eloquent quirks of mise en scene (Banks’ entry into the spacecraft makes interesting use of gravitational fluctuations), subversive use of storytelling technique such as flashback, or the simple framing in mid-shot of a character’s expression.
Indeed, Arrival looks and sounds divine. Cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson deserve to be applauded, their combined efforts simultaneously marvelling at beauty and unsettling through a sense of the unknown. They complement one of Amy Adams’ finest performances as a university professor unwittingly called upon in mankind’s potentially defining moment while continuing to be haunted by the premature loss of her young daughter to an incurable disease.
She represents an ideal for humanity – selfless, courageous, caring, smart – but one defined by the human condition, a sense of loss, guilt and powerlessness weighing on her shoulders. Louise Banks is a character almost as intriguing as the ambiguity surrounding the aliens’ motivation for landing on earth. It is the balance between the two that makes Arrival consistent in intrigue, evidently invigorating the edge-of-your-seat thrills usually reserved for more generic offerings. In fact, Villeneuve uses enigmatic character study – of those of and beyond our world – to immerse us in this fascinating journey.
Miraculously, the film, which is based on Ted Chiang’s novella (first published in 1998), takes a complicated subject (in this case the use, development and implementation of language) and makes what could be a lecture to postgrads interesting for audiences not privy to the various levels of centre-embedded clauses, free word order and semagrams. Indeed, the details are less important than the overarching theme: which is how we communicate. This takes on a much more recognisable guise as world powers first share information then decide to isolate themselves as suspicion between nations grows.
At its core, Arrival is a film with ideas, imagination and purpose. Its multi-layered “us and them” motif invigorates the senses, transcending mere metaphor. Significantly, as a film following in the footsteps of so many similarly themed alien contact/invasion movies, it finds a unique niche, unhurried pace and melancholic tone that clearly distinguishes it. It’s a marvellous piece of pure sci-fi, a smart and intriguing film that beautifully finds a small, intimate canvas on which to paint its big ideas.