Dir: Denis Villeneuve
By making such an incredible and intelligent sci-fi, Denis Villeneuve has now secured himself a place on my very short list of directors whose work I’m eager to see more of.
When extraterrestrial craft appear around the planet, in America an expert linguist (Amy Adams) is brought in by the military to help communicate with the creatures and find out their purpose, while other nations try to do the same.
I missed this when it was out in cinemas at the end of last year, circumstances didn’t allow for me to get to the cinema and I was sure I’d missed the chance of seeing it on the big screen. Then a few weeks ago some big films started flopping, so my nearest multiplex (still over 2 hours each way by bus) brought it back for a handful of screenings. I jumped at the opportunity, hoping it would be worth all the effort. I’m very happy to say that it was.
The plot (based on an award-winning short story by Ted Chiang) is brilliant, refreshingly different to the alien invasion films that are regularly made. This takes far deeper themes and works them into a story that highlights the power of communication and not conflict. Each of the key themes as they are developed become intricately woven with each other. Ideas about language, concepts of time and the use of memories, interlace in wonderful complexity that doesn’t tie itself up in knots but has been clearly thought through and makes a lot of sense.
Visually the film is stunning. The design of the alien ships is wonderful, they are monolithic, almost like giant segments of an orange floating just above the ground. Inside it’s extremely minimalist, flat walls and large spaces keep the focus on the characters and action within the ship not on an overabundance of details that could distract. I’m also impressed by the design of the aliens, avoiding the usual rote of making them at least somewhat humanoid. I won’t spoil their appearance for you but they are distinctive, even in terms of lacking usual facial features or limbs, their greater size, and the sounds they make are not like human vocalisations, they stand out.
Real thought has been given to the way the themes of language are developed in the film, right from the fundamental concept that extraterrestrials may be unrecognisably different in their communication to what we expect, through to how understanding a language can affect us. Stunningly the film shows the way the aliens write, a form as beautiful as it is unique, again standing out as far beyond what we think of as writing. All these elements together create a detailed language that is fundamental to the narrative development in ways I had not forseen.
Not over-complicating with lots of interplay between a large ensemble, there are just a few excellently cast key characters. Firstly I’d like to say a word for Jeremy Renner, who is brilliant in his role, which despite not getting award nominations isn’t minor. He really shouldn’t be forgotten as he provides a performance that perfectly compliment Amy Adams’ lead. Also the military, most notably Colonel Weber played by Forest Whitaker, are great partly for the way that while ostensibly in charge they don’t dominate the film, which makes a change in line with it not being the typical alien invasion storyline.
Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks is fantastic. In a film featuring giant spacecraft and aliens, she manages to be the clear focus. Her role is detailed and fully realised, being the driving force of the communication efforts, an incredibly intelligent woman who has human weaknesses but superb strength. She’s our way into the unfolding situation, as we the audience learn things as she does, very little is shown without her in the scene. I’ve not seen Adams’ other nominated film of the year ‘Nocturnal Animals’, but from what I’ve heard and seen in clips, this role is the one that gives her a lot more to work with and so is understandably the one getting award nominations.
Being as it is a sci-fi, there are special visual effects, though not as much as you might expect.It’s firmly rooted in recognisable reality, so the aliens and their craft, while shown clearly are not overused. Everything looks really tangible, to me no effects felt out-of-place, nor ill-fitting beside physical actors and sets. Accompanying the film is a great (now award-nominated) score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which helps to set the tone perfectly, being at times very understated and mysterious, with a definite otherworldliness. I’ve listened to it at home this week and found it to be quite ominous and unsettling, try listening to it while making a cup of coffee and see how unsure you become about how a simple hot drink will turn out. That’s odd proof that it works really well, building on the themes of the film and making the most of the restrained use of visual effects by heightening the impact of what’s shown.
This is the ‘thinking’ sci-fi of the year, possibly longer. I recently said that ‘Passengers‘ was a perfect popcorn sci-fi to enjoy for enjoyments sake, this is the other side of the genre, taking the idea of cerebral science fiction to its absolute best. Villeneuve has strengthened optimism for his sequel to ‘Blade Runner’ (and recently announced ‘Dune’) by showing that he can handle sci-fi in the most brilliant way, and while his earlier film ‘Sicario’ impressed me while not appealing personally to my tastes, this does so much so that I can hardly wait to see what else he goes on to make in the future, especially in this genre. Until they are released I’ll just have to watch this a few more times to see what else I can get from it as without doubt there will be details I missed and depths still to fathom.
As well as 9 BAFTA nominations, ‘Arrival’ has been nominated for an impressive total of 8 Academy Awards in categories including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’. It has strong competition and looks unlikely to win the biggest of those, however I think it may get one or two statues on the night. It’s also due to be released on VOD and home media in the next couple of weeks, so if you missed it in the cinema it’s at least worth renting if not pre-ordering on Blu-ray like I have done!