Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running Time: 116 mins
Synopsis: When 12 mysterious egg shaped objects appear across the planet the US military track down language expert Dr Louise Banks (Adams) to translate the strange noises emanating from the crafts inhabitants. As she delves deeper into the aliens communications she starts to realise she is more important to their plans than she first thought.
If I told you that a film featuring frequent scenes of Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and a bunch of Army grunts attempting to communicate with an alien species from behind a misted glass wall, using a white board and a marker is one of the years best, would you believe me? Well you best start believing as Arrival is intelligent, gripping and truly phenomenal filmmaking.
Denis Villeneuve is responsible for all this. One of the finest directors working today, consistently pumping out confident controlled masterpieces. Prisoners and Sicario, alone, are some of the best films of their respective release years. He builds on that sterling work with this adaptation of short story ‘Story of your Life’ by author Ted Chiang. Managing to encompassing huge themes such as life, death, love, parenthood, faith, communication and time in the simplest of tales. It bears some similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but where that film (while great) got bogged down in too much story, this sci-fi focuses on a tiny array of characters and a simple narrative. The complexity is driven through the use of theme and editing. Villeneuve plays with the fundamentals of time (once again similar to Interstellar) with a sure hand and a focus on how it affects character apposed to story, however to say more would ruin a revelatory third act that will knock you for six.
Villeneuve doesn’t do this all himself though, with a measured fiercely intelligent script by Eric Heisserer, delivered by a troupe of stellar performers. Amy Adams is the best she has ever been here. A complicated role that only reveals its true power towards the end, she is vulnerable but stubborn in her convictions with her smarts given her the strength to fight the pain she suffers from. Adams is particularly effective at making the potentially silly high science fiction moments feel nothing but real and genuine. It will be a great shock if the Academy doesn’t give her some love for this.
Her partner in crime is Jeremy Renner and here he brings the same warm grounded levity to the high concepts as he has done in the Mission Impossible and MCU films. In fact it’s starting to become almost a cliched role for him, steadily veering him away from the coiled intensity of his earlier performances. This film needs that sort of character though and as events escalate he provides a welcome anchor to the surreal moments that occur.
Whilst these two make up the central thrust of the film there is able support lent by strong character actors such as Forest Whitaker, playing the stoic army general, and Michael Stuhlberg as a CIA stooge who isn’t your expected governmental bad guy. In fact Arrival should be applauded for not having any black and white villain. All the countries and their respective representatives make questionable decisions but ones driven by believable fear and paranoia. The need for them to communicate with each other is a key theme of the movie, and one that is delivered with remarkable restraint. What could have been an overtly preachy message subsequently jammed down your throat is instead rendered more powerful through its subtlety.
In fact this subtlety is a key to the films enormous success. Every theme and message is never delivered by a grandstanding monologue but through mood and quiet interactions between characters. Villeneuve is never tempted to showcase your typical alien invasion imagery, glimpses of anarchy or military intervention are only seen on TV reports and brief at that. Who needs a Roland Emmerich style OTT shot of an approaching alien spaceship when more can be said via Amy Adams’s expressively aghast face. There is numerous imagery here that will stick in your mind long after the film ends. From the encroaching ominous mist that surrounds the alien egg as a military convoy approaches to the almost Terence Malick inspired shots of a child playing with her mother.
If that sounds like it may veer into pretentiousness then don’t fret. Villeneuve takes effective inspiration from some true movie greats, from the clinical measured control of Kubrick to the emotional dramatic heights of classic Spielberg. He manages to get the balance between them spot on. Strong evidence that the sequel to Blade Runner is in capable hands. Let’s also hope he brings frequent musical collaborator Johann Johannson along with him. He builds on the phenomenal work of his Sicario score here with brooding, foreboding sounds and gently emotional melodic pieces. A delightful bow on top of this multi-layered movie gift.
Verdict: Fiercely intelligent but with an emotional underbelly of real power. Denis Villeneuve brings some of the best in camera and behind the camera talent together to deliver a work of true brilliance, one of the years finest!