DIR: Denis Villeneuve • WRI: Eric Heisserer • PRO: Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, David Linde, Karen Lunder, Aaron Ryder • DOP: Bradford Young • ED: Joe Walker • DES: Patrice Vermette • MUS: Jóhann Jóhannsson • CAST:Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Rule number one of big budget sci-fi releases: make sure Love trumps Science. Or if not Love, at least Linguistics. (And Love. Lots of Love.) Remember to scoff about Science as often as possible – this way when your semi-coherent plot dissolves into an incoherent puddle of emotional goo in the final act, you can remind your audience that they should have expected it all along.
Harsh? Yes. Fair? Maybe. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is certainly visually impressive and its first act packs a satisfying emotional punch. Beginning like an updated version of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Arrival starts with the news that twelve giant alien spacecrafts have appeared in seemingly random locations around the world. Their motives are unknown. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist who is still coming to terms with the trauma of losing her young daughter Hannah to an unspecified rare disease, is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join the U.S. Military’s efforts to communicate with the aliens. Along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr Banks begins routinely meeting with the aliens in an attempt to decipher their unrecognisable language.
While the cinematography is spectacular, with the alien’s massive egg-shaped spacecrafts dominating every shot of the landscape, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s booming musical score accords almost perfectly with the onscreen action, there is something unsatisfying or undercooked about the film’s endeavour. Arrival never fully escapes from the bounds of its source material, Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life.” As the point of view character there, it was understandable there that we were focused on Dr Bank’s interiority. Here, however, Banks and Donnelly are part of a much wider operation but it never really translates properly: you can almost imagine that everyone is just twiddling their thumbs until one of them enters the room. Whitaker is particularly unfortunate here, given the unfortunate job of being the Questions Guy, only a step above Exposition Dude. There is also a sense of trepidation about Villeneuve’s representation of the U.S. military. Apart from a couple of rogue operators, the organisation as a whole appears to be little more than a science lab for Bank’s experiments, keeping things above board while other world powers crumble. Given recent events (or, you know, the last three hundred years or so) it seems like a bit of an oversight.
There are some innovative scenes regarding the aliens and their technology, which keep things interesting for much of the run-time. Although it would have been nice to have an explanation for some of the things, such as the disruption of gravity, their inclusion was not unwelcome. In regards to the aliens themselves, perhaps Villeneuve should have stuck to the maxim that “less is more,” as the reveal of the aliens’ physical forms isn’t particularly enlightening. Or alternatively, in a film concerned with exploring the boundaries of visual representations, maybe it would have been worthwhile to hit us with something more experimental.
Thankfully Amy Adams’ performs admirably as the heart and soul of the drama, and the film’s opening montage detailing her daughter’s initial happy years followed by her tragic demise is, in itself, a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and loss, expertly shot. Jeremy Renner tries but is hampered by an uninspired role as the inevitable love interest. When Arrival finally dissolves into that inevitable puddle of incomprehensible goo, it is at least nice to know that the people involved meant well.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Arrival is released 4th November 2016