Arrival (2016)


Dennis Villeneuve may well be my favourite director working today, and I can’t believe that it took my viewing of Arrival to hammer that home to me. Although I have only seen his past couple of movies, both have been smart and hugely entertaining. In fact, I have STILL to rewatch Enemy before I fully make my mind up about it, it’s such a fantastically freaky piece of work. His latest, however, not only stands out as a great film, it’s arguably the finest sci-fi movie I have seen released in cinemas in the last couple of decades.

The plot sees aliens arriving here on Earth. Twelve UFOs. Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, an expert in languages who ends up enlisted by the government to help them communicate with the aliens. She’s tasked to work alongside Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), and it soon becomes clear that the sooner they can effectively communicate with the visitors the sooner they can help to avert potential conflict. Everyone wants to know just why the aliens have arrived, and many are jumping to the worst conclusions.

Based on a story by Ted Chiang, Arrival manages to mix scientific methods with emotional content in a way that should make Christopher Nolan sick with envy (no, I still haven’t fully forgiven him for Interstellar). The script by Eric Heisserer seems simple, and indeed it is, until an exceptional third act lifts everything from very good to great. Lines of dialogue are given added power, the structure of every scene makes much more sense, and there’s a satisfying sense of a strong heartbeat beneath even the most cerebral moments.

Villenueve directs with his usual reliable eye, and his usual sense of patience. The first act takes time to allow viewers to soak up the situation alongside the main characters, and to share in their sense of awe and wonder. But once the stage is set? From then on, things alternate between meditative moments and toe-curling tension. The alien lifeforms are nicely formed, and often held back from full view by a surrounding foggy atmosphere, and there seems to have been a lot of thought also put into the visual depiction of the language. And there’s an added bonus in the fact that much of the movie is underscored by some fine work from Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Despite a solid supporting turn from Forest Whitaker, and one or two others who get involved in the main storyline, the film really only focuses on the characters played by Renner and Adams. The former does some of his best work in a long time, while Adams somehow manages, despite her own impressive track record, to give a performance that I would say counts as one of her best ever. She’s never less than 100% believable, whether approaching a thorny scientific problem from numerous different angles or suppressing some unexpected feelings that the whole experience keeps pushing up to the surface.

I couldn’t say for certain that the film lacks any plot holes. I couldn’t say that everyone will love it. It’s not necessarily a perfect film. It just feels a lot like that while you’re watching it. And I’ll be recommending it to people for a long time to come.


Film Rating: ★★★★½

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