Arrival: Denis Villeneuve’s emotional and strikingly original first-contact sci-fi drama. (DVD and Blu-ray review)
US, 2016/116 mins/Cert. 12A
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Out later this month on DVD and Blu-ray is the contemplative and emotional science fiction drama from director Denis Villeneuve. Adapted for the screen by Eric Heisserer from a Ted Chiang short story: “Story of Your Life”, Arrival received an Academy award earlier this year for sound editing and was nominated in a further seven categories, including Best Picture and Director. The film stars Amy Adams, criminally overlooked for a best actress nomination at this year’s Oscars for her tremendous performance in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Adams is equally impressive here as linguist Dr Louise Banks.
When twelve alien spacecraft suddenly appear at various locations across the globe, Banks is lecturing at college and grieving the loss of her young daughter to cancer. She is subsequently enlisted by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) to assist the US military in their attempt to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors and discover their motive in visiting the Earth. Working alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team of experts, Banks slowly pieces together the alien language. During her dialogue with the aliens she becomes increasingly haunted by dreams of her daughter, learning a devastating truth about her own life in the process.
Pitched somewhere between mainstream science fiction and arthouse cinema, Arrival manages to both entertain whilst simultaneously probing social and geopolitical issues. Banks learns that the alien mission is to impart knowledge, described by the aliens as a ‘gift’ to humanity, and this knowledge concerns the human concept of the linearity of time as the film asks the question that if we were to become capable of seeing into the future, should we change it?
Banks’ journey towards a higher state of human consciousness leaves us to ponder the limitations of language and how human beings communicate and interact with each other on a personal and public level. When the spacecraft arrive, mass panic and rioting ensue around the world with the visitors initially deemed as a threat to humanities existence. Initially puzzled as to why the alien visitors chose their locations across the globe, one of the experts jokes that it could be that Sheena Easton had a number one hit in those countries in the 1980s. Later it becomes apparent that the extraterrestrials have deliberately spread their spacecraft across the globe to facilitate global cooperation. To understand the purpose of the alien visit, the US military must work closely with other teams like those led by Banks at the other sites across the world and share information. With this cooperation between governments comes the hope of a new age of international peace and stability but this optimism soon falters as the national governments revert to mutual mistrust and aggression. Soon a group of dissident American soldiers acting on their own volition plant explosives on the alien spacecraft and divisions within the international operation emerge, leading to political conflict as the Chinese prepare to attack the spacecraft.
I saw Arrival just after the US Presidential election and considering that the film went into production in the summer of 2015 was struck by how prescient it is in its engagement with Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric of isolationism and xenophobia. Similarly, the film also engages with current debates around the issue of immigration as the equation between the irrational threat of the alien “other” and the perceived threat that immigration poses is one of the film’s subtexts, subtly working beneath its narrative surface.
Arrival is a remarkably restrained science fiction piece which relies on narrative and atmosphere rather than spectacular wham-bam special effects to capture the imagination. That said, the shots of the huge, black, oval spacecraft hovering above the surface of the earth like giant otherworldly modernist sculptures are strikingly created and will linger in the memory. The initial approach to the spacecraft is also breathtakingly shot and the cinematography throughout the film is beautifully done. The first time the scientists enter the base of the UFO, they are informed that once inside the spacecraft there is no gravity which means they must courageously jump from their winch with the ground hundreds of feet below- a physical leap which symbolically foreshadows Banks’ personal metaphysical leap of faith later in the film. Once inside, the interior of the spacecraft is also superbly designed as the film eschews the usual technological look of much science fiction cinema opting instead for a much simpler, but brilliantly effective, cavern-like structure. Similarly, the space where Banks and her coterie of experts interview the aliens is also minimalist in its construction, with dazzling white drape-like surfaces which create a stunningly futuristic chiaroscuro effect. The two, seven-limbed, squid-like ‘heptapod’ aliens, viewed from behind a large glass screen and nicknamed Abbott and Costello by Donnelly, communicate semiotically via a system of visual symbols that they squirt into the air like extraterrestrial squid ink. The creatures are a magnificent achievement and the effects and design team on the film have done a tremendous job in creating an entirely original, stylish and ground-breaking new aesthetic for the genre.
Arrival is an intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping drama that will undoubtedly come to be considered as a canonical example of the first-contact trope of science fiction. The film is concerned primarily with human social and personal relationships in our shared present- rather than the technological future- and consequently is much warmer, emotionally engaging and philosophically introspective than many other examples of the genre. Although I found the ending of the film upping the sentimentality quota a touch too much for my personal taste and some viewers may anticipate the plot twist about twenty minutes before its revelation, Arrival’s narrative arc is skilfully presented and hugely satisfying nevertheless. It is a hugely enjoyable film and Villeneuve’s adroit handling here bodes well for his eagerly anticipated Bladerunner 2049 released later this year.
Arrival is available to buy in the UK from 20 March 2017.