From contributing film critic Andrew Gaudion
Denis Villeneuve has emerged into Hollywood cinema with a potent and striking ferocity. Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario (sensing a single-word title theme here) are all films which carefully subvert expectation of their respective genres with a unique edge and style that feels incredibly driven by a strong auteur, a voice that levels the likes of David Fincher in terms of a distinct visual palette. The French-Canadian has hit a certain level of expectation in which every film is one I await with almost feverish anticipation (he is the only reason I am ok with a Blade Runner sequel). His latest is his first dip into sci-fi before heading into the world of Philip K. Dick, and it is perhaps his finest work yet. And that’s saying something.
The world is thrown into unprecedented territory with the arrival of 12 extra-terrestrial vessels, nicknamed ‘Shells’, appearing across the globe. With each world government taking on their own plans to establish contact and clarify the visitors’ intentions, the US government asks for the help of linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). The clock is ticking however, as tensions across nations begin to rise, putting human and alien cooperation at risk and thrusting Louise into a pivotal position.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life, Arrival reveals itself to be an incredibly emotional and enriching experience, one which once again carefully subverts genre expectation to deliver a sci-fi experience that is both cerebral and heartfelt. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay is one of the finest of the year, taking Chiang’s very technical and very short story and crafting it into an intimate piece of sci-fi that has incredible scope, despite operating within very contained locations.
Villeneuve and Heisserer invite us in with familiar genre touchstones (looming spaceships, military abrasiveness, a heroine removed from all the bureaucracy) and the reference points are sometimes obvious, with a touch of Contact, a good lashing of Kubrick, and it’s hard not to think of Interstellar come the mind-warping third act. But the means in which we become involved in this story are more than unique.
Our genre expectations are subverted across the runtime, presenting us with a very personal story that unfolds in a very involving and quietly awe-inspiring fashion, complete with original alien designs. It is a highly intelligent film, one which involves discussion of language and semantics, and their power in uniting people of all nations, as well as demonstrating how intentions can be (mis)interpreted. Yet, it never feels bogged down in its discussion of linguistics, with the dialogue easily conveying the technical jargon, effortlessly demonstrating the importance of establishing a dialect between world and other worldly powers.
The cerebral nature of Arrival is more than matched by its emotion, which is carried easily by Adams as the lead. Her inquisitive doe-eyes are in constant fascination, as her Louise leads us through this situation and keeps the drama grounded as the proceedings become more and more ambitious. There is excellent support from the likes of Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, all actors very capable of delivering un-showy and equally grounded performances to help maintain the sense that this is a situation occurring in the real world.
Arrival took some digesting to fully absorb, I have had to see it twice to truly wrap my head around it. The final act is one that should leave you stunned, not only due to the nature of its revelations, but also due to how incredibly emotional it ends up being (something which using the music of Max Richter perhaps always guarantees). It is a film that has arrived at a very confused time in our world, a time where our understanding of each other feels most tested. Arrival is a film which strives to inspire healthier conversation between all walks of life, to lead to a more cooperative and understanding world. Put simply, it is exactly the film we need right now, one that is not only a unique cinematic experience that delivers a heartfelt and cerebral piece of science fiction, but also one which is incredibly prescient, with a message that we all need to listen to. It is the kind of film that reminds you how powerful the form can be. So, get to the nearest shell you can, and prepare to be stunned.(5 / 5)
(Photos copyright:21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films)