Film review – Arrival

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ARRIVAL

Thought-provoking sci-fi drama about first contact with an alien race, who arrive in ships strategically placed around the planet simultaneously.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and directed by Denis Villeneuve.

What would happen if aliens landed on our planet ?
Have you ever stopped to think about it ?
I mean, really stopped to think about it ?
How would it affect you and the people around you ?
How would the media react ? Or the military ? Or the various governments, world leaders, conglomerates, corporations and captains of industry ?
Would there be mass hysteria or mass apathy and an impending sense of doom ?
Maybe there would there be a swelling of hope and positivity ?
Perhaps religious fervour would take hold as some interpret it as the second coming ?

Arrival is a profound tale that asks all of these questions and more.
It answers a few of them too, but like 2001, Close Encounters and Interstellar before it, Arrival leaves its audience thinking. I like that in a sci-fi movie.
Based on a short story called The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the plot revolves around the eponymous arrival of twelve alien ships, each of which has “parked” – for want of a better word – hovering above the earth’s surface. In various locations around the world, they hang silently suspended : Australia, China, Denmark, Japan, the Black Sea and so on, though the story focuses on rural Montana, USA.
Like a smooth pebble stood on one end, the giant pod-like vessels are eerily beautiful but strangely menacing at the same time, with one story arc looking at the way they are perceived around the world. Maybe that’s why they were put where they were ? Perhaps the aliens wanted to see as diverse a view of our world as they could ? Or maybe it was completely random. We don’t know yet. What we do know is the world has ground to a halt as we sit and wait to see what’s going to happen next …

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Tension.
Ignorance.
Curiosity.
Fear.
Wonder.
The mind races as the possibilities abound ..
Surely they could have wiped us out already if they’d wanted to, so why are they here ?
What is their purpose ?
Questions. So many questions.
We need to be able to communicate with them.
Enter linguistics expert Louise Banks (Adams), recruited by the US military to help decode whatever messages the aliens plan on sending us. Alongside her, physisist Ian Donnelly (Renner) has been selected to cover the science side of things, with Colonel Weber (Whitaker) eager to speed up the process by playing them off against each other from the get-go. They’ve not even landed at the alien ship’s location before they’re arguing the potentials and debating the what-ifs, with Weber smug that his devil’s advocacy may just work ..
Similar scenarios are taking place all over the world and the twelve nations involved all quickly agree to share information and pool their collective resources in order to work out what’s going on. Live feeds are installed overnight with teams of interpreters working over time, banks of computers whirring and teams of data analysts and various experts all doing their best to unravel the mysteries before them.
What happens next sees Banks and Donnelly communicating with the aliens inside the ships themselves, slowly at first but increasingly rapidly as the two professors team up to figure it all out. The scenes inside the ship are incredibly atmospheric and beautifully filmed, ramping up the tension with each session spent face to face with beings from another world.
The language itself is completely different to any on earth and without the aid of computers Banks would’ve taken years to even get the merest foothold of a chance of understanding it, such is the complexity of it all. Arrival is very much a modern take on the first contact premise with none of the usual “Take me to your leader” style clichés and you’re conscious of the feeling that this film could not have been made twenty years ago.
Time itself plays a massive part in the story and – as in Interstellar – a suspension of belief is required to go with it all, kind of like a leap of faith, before everything falls into place.
The payoff is deeply emotional : for the lead characters, for the planet and for you, the audience.

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… but to say any more than that would be spoiling the sci-fi picture of the year.
Amy Adams gives the performance of a lifetime here and will surely be nominated for an Oscar. Jeremy Renner surprised me by showing some real acting chops – though admittedly I’ve only ever seen him in action movies till this point – and the chemistry between the two of them was well paced and organic. Forest Whitaker makes an excellent colonel : a strong leader, good people manager yet under immense pressure to get results.
The cinematography is stunning in places, while the effects are all too real – Villeneuve deserves a lot of credit for making Arrival so believable.
If you want laser guns and monsters, action and machismo, forget it.
If you like cerebral sci-fi and wished Interstellar had had a female lead, you need to see this picture.

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