ScreenCritics Adam takes a look at 2016’s intriguing ‘Arrival’. Does it do enough to catch our interest, or is all the hype unworthy?
Unfortunately, many people have a bit of a downer on sci-fi. That’s because when you mention those words, they don’t think of some of the great films released in the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but of Blakes Seven and Doctor Who back in the 1970’s, where the sets were bright colors and covered in tin-foil. Heck, a Dalek has a whisk on the front, that’s pretty ridiculous when you think about it. But that’s doing the genre a disservice as while there is the camp fun stuff, there’s so many that say a lot more about humanity than those focused purely on real life. One of those films is Arrival.
All of a sudden, twelve spaceships appear on Planet Earth and no one has any idea why they are here. To see if they can start talking with these aliens, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, Platoon) contacts world-renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams, Man of Steel) to try and find some way of having a dialogue with the otherworldly visitors.
Where Arrival succeeds in most is establishing such a fantastic atmosphere. This one is always a tough thing to explain without watching, but the way that the music and camerawork combines for this otherworldly feeling throughout means you are gripped to the story, even when it is going places you aren’t really sure of. The director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) wants to you to get that this is a very important story, but realises that if his characters just constantly say it’s important, that’ll be more tiring and probably make your film far less important. Yet the way the music keeps going with its low tones and how the camera is willing to pull back so many times just to allow us the witness the scale of what is happening tells us that this film is massive, without verbally having to tell us. That’s brilliant visual storytelling, and more director should follow in the path of Villeneuve.
But yet despite the fact Arrival has a massive scale, it is actually a rather small story. After all, the film is about some huge invasion and the Earth trying to fend them off, it’s about a few people trying to teach some aliens English so they can find out why they have come to this planet. So many of the scenes are Louise in the spaceship trying to teach the aliens English while trying to understand the symbols she gets in return. This could be swapped out for a period piece about the New World, I’m sure there’s real life cases of this sort of thing, but the extra scale of this being first contact adds gravitas to a simple story. It means we have a very effective narrative throughout and because the story is simple, it means you can add a lot to it without losing the audience.
And what’s most intriguing is that contrary to what most film professors would tell is needed in a movie, there’s barely in the conflict. Oh there is some, the final third is energised by the fact China are set to pull out of talks with the aliens and instead declare war on then, but for most of the two-hour running time, the main drama is whether or not Louise will work out what the aliens language means. That’s a lot of trust to put in the audience that they will be engaged in a film which is purely about the answer to a question, with the only real force working against them being time. And that trust pays off because the film is coming from a real place because should aliens exist and decide to visit us, we are going to be in this exact position where we have to work out how to talk each other, and let’s face it, someone will try and blow them up.
And this is all backed up by a virtuoso performance by Amy Adams. I feel like her stock has been falling in recent years even if she has appeared in a lot of good films mainly because she has put in some very bland performances in the DC films, though I blame the material given to her. But here she is given a role with a lot of meat to it, and she goes on to give one of the best performances of her career. She adds so much emotional weight to a role that could have easily succumbed to being just exposition and she really sells the connection she has to the aliens, which is amazing as the design of said aliens makes it difficult to even conceive that they are real. Also credit to Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) who gives one of the best performances of his career, which is great as I felt his stock was diminishing as well.
So are there any problems with Arrival? Well not really, but the ending is something I have a bit of an issue with. The revelation was always going to divide the audience because of how well the film built it up, it would disappoint. Instead of veering into the overly cheesy and sentimental ending like the film threatens to do at one point, it instead goes into deep sci-fi. I don’t mind that and the ending makes sense if you take a few minutes to accept it plus it will make any re-watch heartbreaking. However I feel as if the film went too deep into the sci-fi genre, as if there was a feeling that they needed to be a bit more out there after telling such a simple story. I get it, and it works within the film so I can’t take that much umbrage with it, and I know this is down to my own personal taste where I feel as if too many serious sci-fi films try to do something very philosophical to separate themselves from the cheesy laser gun stuff. And this did trigger that bad feeling I get when films try this, Interstellar sent it into overdrive by the way, though it does recover from that.
Arrival is brilliant. There’s not many other words to describe it. The ending will divide people I feel, but that doesn’t stop the rest of the film being something truly amazing to behold. This is a story about connections, about new relationships and while that could have been done on a small-scale with two different countries meeting for the first time, the film ends up going big and use the genre it is in to tell a powerful story. It is a must watch.