There’s apparently a hole in the schedule each year for one “intelligent science-fiction film”. Last year it was The Martian, the year before that Interstellar, and before that Gravity. This year we have Arrival, the first genre piece from director Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario), and it’s certainly intelligent. Contemplative and slow, Arrival is much more of a thinker than it is a doer.
After alien “shells” appear in twelve locations across the world, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is tasked with trying to understand the message being communicated by the extraterrestrial beings. Working with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, Captain America: Civil War), she must decipher what they want before the rest of the world takes decisive action against them.
From the beginning, Arrival grounds itself with narration that it will ask us to recall as we travel forward. None of what is to come is hard to keep track of, but Villeneuve directs in the fashion of an ouroboros, looping themes and developments around each other until each scene is inextricably linked around Adams. This layering makes Arrival seem more intricate than it may actually be, disguising the purity of its core. Everything is laid out in the end, simply and beautifully — albeit in a fashion that doesn’t leave room for ambiguity.
Adams radiates a warm sadness and curiosity as Banks, even when she doesn’t know what she has to be sad about. Arrival is that brand of science fiction that thrives on discovery, rewarding those who thrive on speculative fiction. The concepts are probably sound from a linguistic perspective, and the speculation is precisely the sort that hits very niche buttons; it’s difficult not to be intrigued by this movie. The script, by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) and adapted from Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life, is dogged by one truly terrible line at the end, but it otherwise maintains its mystique across its slow and thoughtful 116 minutes.
Produced on a relatively small budget, Arrival is stylish, but it favours big ideas over big set pieces. The simplicity of the shells and the base camp set up around the one Banks is investigating is effective, but if you want to see an explosive alien war movie, Arrival is distinctly not the one. This is far more contemplative and far less action-packed — Banks’ weapons of choice are a whiteboard and marker, so low-tech that it takes her a literal month to make the transition to digital equipment.
Arrival is not a movie unlike any other; it’s allegedly like at least three other movies. The science-fiction slot, however, is becoming an increasingly anticipated and justifiably celebrated part of the cinematic year. If you want to think about intelligent life instead of blowing it up, Arrival may be the movie for you.
Arrival opened in Australian cinemas on November 10, 2016.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma.