If you thought you were in for an ordinary alien invasion movie, Arrival wastes no time in subverting your expectations. Rather than the typical sci-fi blockbuster bombast – here the world’s landmarks remain firmly rooted to their foundations – the arrival of the movie’s potentially threatening E.T.s is heralded by a series of smartphone notifications rippling out among a group of stunned college students. It’s a fantastically grounded approach that’s emblematic of a movie that has more on its mind than the next attention-grabbing set-piece. And while director Denis Villeneuve sometimes overwhelms the plot with complexities, in an era of identikit sequels, a little ambition and innovation is more than welcome.
Expanded from a Ted Chiang short story, Arrival follows Amy Adams’ Dr Louise Banks, a world-renowned linguist who has seemingly shut herself off from the world after the heart-wrenching death of her teenage daughter and now buries herself in work to avoid confronting her pain. But before you scrunch up your nose at this grieving hero cliche, rest assured that Louise’s emotional thread is inventively connected with the plight of Earth’s unexpected guests. The downside of this complicated backstory is that it makes it hard for Louise’s grief to fully resonate, and it’s fortunate that Villeneuve has Adams on hand to convincingly sell her sadness, confusion and frustration with exceptional subtlety.
Louise is shoved out of her funk when Forest Whitaker’s sceptical military chief choppers onto her lawn to request her help in deciphering the inky coffee-mug-stain symbols of the aliens’ language. It turns out each of the dozen rocky alien monoliths that suddenly appeared at random points across the globe open a hatch every 18 hours, allowing a delegation of scientists into their gravity-bending interior. The heptapods, as they are called, are an unnerving yet majestic creation, resembling a mix of octopus, whale and gnarled fingers, who emerge from a foreboding sea of swirling white mist to converse with their reluctant hosts.
Given the film explores such heady concepts as linguistics and semantics, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the plot is heavy going at times, particularly during Louise’s first interactions with the Heptapods which get bogged down in the need to lay the building blocks of language in order to move forward. But then we get to a stunning mid-film revelation that turns everything we thought we knew on its head. Suddenly, all the mysteries we’ve been bombarded with so far – Why are the aliens here? Why only 12 pods? – finally gain clarity. The plot also benefits from the imposition of a ticking clock, adding a much-needed sense of urgency and propulsion as Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (a suitably charming Jeremy Renner) race to understand the Heptapods’ message before the Chinese and the Russians blow their nuclear loads.
Arrival is a beautifully crafted experience that challenges viewers to think differently, and yet unfolds with the breathless intensity of thriller. And like all the best sci-fi movies, it has more to say about humanity than it does its alien visitors; most pertinently, about the importance of communication, co-operation and trust in order to cross cultural divides and resolve the world’s most challenging problems. At a time when our planet feels more divided than every before, that’s message that’s well worth taking the time to hear.
Runtime: 116 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 10 November 2016;
Director: Denis Villeneuve; Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer;
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg