Every so often a Sci-fi movie comes along that is just…different. Many a’times it’s set in space or in a futuristic version of earth, action-orientated, packed with laser guns and advanced ships, full of politics and lots of clean, spiky, skin-tight uniforms. But every so often a sci-fi movie is set on earth, closer to our time, and it tackles the possibility that there is simply a failure to communicate, rather than an aggressive takeover and demolition. This is that movie.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (who also directed an amazing film called Incendies), our story revolves around Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams in her third movie this year), a University Lecturer and a Linguist (A scientist who studies languages to a deeper level than most), who, along with everybody else on earth, witnesses the arrival of 12 Alien Spacecrafts shaped like dried bonito blocks in 12 different countries around the world. The day after everybody was told to go home, Louise returns to an empty college…because sometimes people living alone do that. While watching the news on her computer, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) appears and provides her with an audio recording of the Aliens speaking. Louise tells them that in order to help, she would need to meet the Aliens face to face. Her request was declined…until she asks Weber to ask the next specialist a particular question. That night, Weber returns for Louise and brings her, along with Theorhetical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and translators from the other places were the ships landed (hover over) on, to try and figure out what the Aliens are saying, and what they are trying to accomplish on earth….and whether they should be afraid.
Now for the stranger details:
The Acting in Arrival is very good with nobody being particularly hammy at any point. It’s great to see Jeremy Renner getting work when he’s not playing Hawkeye, and Amy Adams has been putting on some very good performances lately.
In terms of characters, a majority of them are White Bread (I’m using that term broadly, it has nothing to do with whitewashing, so keep your privates and your bird flips to yourselves) – there’s not much in the way of Humour in Arrival – everybody is dead serious about everything, with the small exception of Louise in her scenes with her daughter. What struck me the most about this film though, was the slow reveal of the aliens mixed with the music chosen…For the first time in a long time, I actually felt chills in the cinema from a non-horror movie. They were very like the spaceships in War Of The Worlds, only moving and shrouded in fog…the aliens I mean. It’s that fear of the unknown – something you would experience when watching The Thing or Alien.
The story is based on “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and it could be said that it’s about Louise Banks at a turning point in her life just as much as it is about humanity simply trying to figure out what the Aliens want. That there is more to this film than simply deciding how to react to this unknown race or species, but also whether a person would make certain decisions about life outside of this. Yes – here is this looming possibility that spells out “death to humanity” or “Life is going to suck”- but then we ask ourselves “Despite this possibility…do we still plan to live out our lives and our dreams?”. It is not your typical Overcoming The Monster story, and while I think it’s closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (my least favourite Stanley Kubrick film) in essence than Firefly or Guardians Of The Galaxy, it’s still a well-made, engaging, but slow Sci-fi film.
The music is by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory Of Everything), who creates a very haunting score consisting mostly of piano, strings, loops, synthesisers, and chants within ambience. It’s the type of music that makes you think, and brings you to a place in your mind were you feel alone, and entering a great peril – much like Louise Banks as she attempts to understand what the aliens are saying.
In terms of themes, the films asks some very interesting questions, and includes delving into something that could be seen as both a blessing or a curse, depending on how it’s approached. I won’t say what it is – it has to be seen, as it’s well put together.
The cinematography is excellent. Some truly fabulous shots here. I can argue that the colour palette was quite heavily drained with lots of cool shades and few warm looking scenes, but it’s still very well presented.
The art style show us the present, but something about it feels like it’s 2021 or 2026 rather than 2016. Which would make sense. Some might question the art direction, but I do think there were a lot of good decisions made.
Would I recommend Arrival? Yes. It’s a very different sort of Sci-fi film with a different context within its journey and climax. But somehow it manages to be engrossing despite the lack of usual sci-fi antics. It asks a lot of questions and has you coming out thinking about them. Is this my favourite or a favourite Sci-Fi film? No, but it’s still very good, and even worth a second look at some point. I still prefer a heavier emphasis on the fiction within science-fiction, but this did a great job in giving me something different. Some will wonder why I’m not giving this 5 stars – and my answer is: compare characters to other enjoyable films. Good movie, but bland and all-too-serious when it comes to their characters…Or maybe I’ve been floating around the Whedon-verse for too long. Which makes this your problem and not mine.
Special Effects/CGI: ****1/2
Art Style: ****1/4