“Memory’s a strange thing”
I watched ‘Arrival’ last Friday, but it’s taken me over a week to process my feelings about it. I’ve been waiting for ‘Arrival’ for a long time. With films like ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Enemy,’ Denis Villeneuve became one of my favourite modern directors (‘Sicario’ was a rare misfire for him in my eyes; click here for my review). His foray into science fiction had me biting at the champ. The rave reviews made me bite harder and probably left me a little deflated when the credits rolled after the film. However, that’s not to say ‘Arrival’ isn’t a great film. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s not without flaws, but it is a must see movie.
Alien spacecrafts have arrived and it’s up to Dr Louise Banks to communicate with them. She’s a professor of comparative linguistics, not an actual doctor. Along with astrophysicist Ian Donnelly, she endeavours to talk to these aliens before one country forgets about talking and decides to blow the alien visitors out of the sky…you know, because most alien invasion movies depict the aliens trying to destroy us! I want to keep this review light on spoilers, because the less you know about the film the better. It’s a film that draws you in slowly (almost too slowly at times), but reaps rewards at the end.
“Why are you here?”
Of course, as far as “alien first contact” movies go, ‘Arrival’ is more like ‘Contact’ than ‘Independence Day.’ There’s merely one explosion in the film and I don’t recollect one gun being fired. After a brief introduction that shows us a summary of Dr Banks relationship with her daughter (think of the beginning of ‘Up’), the story begins. News stations are alive with the sound of alien invasion. We don’t see the spacecraft themselves until Banks see them, about twenty minutes or so into the film. The wait is even longer to see the aliens themselves. We see something of the chaos that first contact usually entails; jets fly overhead as Banks walks to her car, and cars reverse into each other in haste to drive away. Our main source of information for the first twenty minutes of the film is through the news, just how the vast majority of people see big events happening.
Villeneuve is a master of tension, and the build-up before the revelation of the spacecraft is yet another masterclass in tension (as is the build up to Banks’ first attempt at communication with the aliens). News snippets whet our appetites for what’s to come, but there’s also enough panic shown in the news snippets to make us afraid of that revelation. The paranoia and panic is potent. When that revelation comes, it is a glorious scene, full of foreboding and beauty. The rolling mists, the alien object hovering above the ground, the military base covered by a green and pleasant land…It’s one of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in film this year. Beauty streaks through the film. Most shots are composed like an art work. The mixture of tension and beauty is something that Villeneuve excels in.
But what is tension and beauty without a message in science fiction? All great science fiction has a message and turns a mirror onto humanity. ‘Arrival’ is no exception. Early on in the film, Donnelly disagrees with Banks about what first contact between any beings relies on. Banks says language; Donnelly says science (presumably because science is universal). However, the central message of ‘Arrival’ is that communication is key to everything. It’s miscommunication that hampers things mid-way through the film. In a move that won’t appeal to the Chinese audience, it’s the Chinese who seem eager to blow the aliens up. In a year that’s seen people vote for Brexit and Donald Trump (in effect put two fingers up to globalisation), ‘Arrival’ is a truly important film. Can’t we all just talk about things, instead of putting up walls (both metaphorical and physical) between ourselves?
“If all I ever gave you was a hammer…”
But viewer beware: ‘Arrival’ is a slow burner. In the middle, it slows to a crawl as Banks tries to decipher the alien language. It veers on the edge of boring in the bloated middle, especially with a sub-plot that doesn’t have a great impact on the overall story. Fortunately, Amy Adams holds everything together in a subtle yet powerful performance. The overall message of the film maybe about communication, but her story is about love, loss and grief. She never overstates anything, screams or shouts (or eats raw liver like Leo did), but it’s a low-key performance that communicates volumes often without speech. It’s her face, more than the spacecraft or the aliens, that lingers long in the mind after watching the film. Oscar-worthy? Definitely. She evokes such a wide range of emotions (as does the story) that you almost immediately sympathise with her.
If I talk anymore about ‘Arrival’ I’ll spoil it. But suffice to say, it’s a film that makes you re-evaluate the whole experience towards the end. And you’ll keep re-evaluating it over and over again when you leave the cinema. It may not live up to the lofty expectations that the rave reviews have led you to believe. The slow-burning approach almost burns out in the middle, leaving only Adams to hold the film together. However, the third act kicks in, and the pace and plot quicken. The wait through the middle is more than worth it, as well. ‘Arrival’ is a film of beauty and tension, a film that has a message for these dark times of humanity. Brexit and Trump may have you down, but ‘Arrival’ will bring you up. Not without a few tears, however. It’s a film that encompasses so may emotions and themes that a mere review does not do it justice. If you haven’t done so yet, go and watch ‘Arrival’ for one of the most important science fiction films of the modern era.
VERDICT: 9/10: ‘Arrival’ is a film that demands to be seen. It doesn’t quite meet the sky-high expectations that greeted it’s arrival, mainly due to a bloated and plodding second act. However, ‘Arrival’ comes with a fantastic performance from Amy Adams and important messages about communication, love, loss and grief.
What did you think of ‘Arrival’? Leave your comments below!