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There’s a daunting strangeness to much of Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s will they/won’t they alien invasion movie. There is awe here but it’s mixed with dread. It’s not Spielbergian, childish awe but the awe of encountering something that may be infinitely more dangerous than you could imagine. You know that, if it wanted to, it could destroy you many times over. Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks whose job to ask the new arrivals, politely, what their intentions are. Daunting.
Villeneuve, best known as the Director of Sicario and Enemy has a really wonderful grasp of tone and atmosphere. After a quick opening that could be described as ‘if Terence Malick directed the first six minutes of Pixar’s Up,’ he holds off on the reveal of the alien ships (an image we’ve seen on the poster, anyway) in favour of showing us human faces reacting to seeing world changing news on TV. The sense of uneasy, half-panic in the films early stages is brilliantly handled. Everyone leaves work walking but wanting, instinctively, to run. Instead they redirect their anger at the guy who just dinged their car while the air force scrambles jets overhead.
Soon, Louise is recruited to try to communicate with the visitors, linking up with confused and frightened people all over the world who are trying to cooperate and make sense of what’s going on. She’s just a woman in a man’s (and, now, alien’s) world trying to get the men (and aliens) to listen to her. Louise must figure out a way to do her ‘Me Jane, You Kodos’ thing and thankfully we don’t skim too much over this process. It’s an interesting and fun thing to watch. This movie, while not light on Hollywood spectacle is genuinely concerned with ideas. In particular, how language affects the way we experience the world.
This is Villeneuve’s biggest budget movie yet and, in some ways, a public test of his handling of Sci-Fi. He is the guy behind the camera on the long awaited Blade Runner sequel and if Arrival were to stumble it wouldn’t bode well for that franchise. There’s no need to worry. He manages to blend the source material (a short story) with a lot of classic Sci-Fi influences but always manages to feel very ‘him’. The space ships look like 2001‘s obelisk crossed with an Apple mouse and the story is kinda Close Encounters as narrated by a nervous Billy Pilgrim. Throughout the film, though, fans of the director’s work will feel at home.
This movie is so good that you want it to be perfect. It doesn’t quite get there. Some plot elements feel rushed and there’s a non-sequitur of a character arc towards the end. These aren’t enough to derail proceedings but rather they stand out when put next to so much great stuff.
Also, talking to much about these (pretty minor) short-comings is tricky without spoiling the movie’s ending. I’ll hold off. It’s best to go into this fresh. It’s not that Arrival is a plot-twist machine. It’s more that mystery and that the unexpected play such a big part. Viewing with fresh eyes is advised. This is a wonderful balancing act between wordy ideas and big, base, movie visuals. It’s biggest achievement, though, might be that it will make you excited to see a sequel to Blade Runner.