Having only recently caught up with Sicario and being completely surprised by it (in a good way), Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi gala screening, Arrival, looked very promising. Even going in with high expectations though, I was surprised once again (in a good way). Given that this is the man tasked with ruining, sorry, realising the sequel to Blade Runner, this leaves me hopeful.
For this one though, we have Amy Adams’s expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks teamed up with Jeremy Renner’s science guy Ian Donnelly in order to decode the language of some recent visitors to planet earth. Earth responds to the visitors, who appear in the form of gigantic monolithic spacecraft, in the way you would expect. Everybody gets really tetchy and the initial worldwide cooperation soon gives way to the Chinese spoiling everything and taking Russia and Pakistan with them.
Fortunately for us all, the main focus of the movie isn’t on combat of any description, it is firmly with the two clever bods left traveling into the zero gravity spacecraft to talk to the octopus like residents. As tensions builds in the outside world and the linguists attempt to translate the pictorial like squirts that the creatures emit to communicate, it’s only a matter of time before war is declared, something bought ever closer by the translation of the word ‘weapon’.
Villeneuve handles all of this with admirable constraint as he fearlessly concentrates the action on translation and not on, well, actual action. It’s an admirable move and one that must have been difficult to stick with in a $50 million picture but it’s essential to make this film stand out from any number of other sci-fi first encounters movies. It’s surprising that it has taken so long for a movie to spend so much time on what is a fundamental question for extraterrestrial visitors and Villeneuve does well to keep the tension bubbling along as we stare at people staring at innumerable words and strange squiggles on the screen.
Adams and Renner are a good pair as the humans central to the survival of life on earth. Adams is the more rounded character though to give too much away would spoil the movie, the less you know about the plot going in here, the more you will get out of this. As you piece together the bits fed to you though, there are some impressively big themes to be grappling with.
Visually and sonically Arrival is a movie that inspires awe but it’s the characters and the big questions it raises that really make it stand out in a crowded sci-fi field. Anyone looking for city level destruction should head off to the next Marvel movie. Anyone looking for a great looking piece of intelligent sci-fi though, you’re in the right place here.