Arrival is an immersive and moving science fiction drama that shows us the value of patient communication. Faced with unpredictable aliens in a high-stakes stand-off, will mankind unite in trying to understand what they want? Or blink first and bomb the hell out of them? An ace linguist seeks to prove that the personal touch is best. World leaders: take note.
Amy Adams is superb in a role that dominates Arrival; her natural warmth and intelligence carries the film over a few bumps and a puzzle of an ending, which feels slightly over-rushed. The aliens have a special bond with her and so do we. As the world teeters on the edge, it is the human touches that matter: the flashbacks to playing with her daughter (‘these are my tickle guns, and I’m going to get you’); overcoming her anxiety when preparing to meet the aliens; taking off her protective suit so that they can see her properly. It is somehow reassuring that in this age of hi-tech gadgetry, the military still use a canary in a cage to check the air for poison.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Sicario has echoes of big-budget sci-fi films such as Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its time-warping twist and ‘monolith’ shells. But as befits its message, Arrival is quietly compelling, with a minimum of disaster movie bombast. Its aliens are all the more intriguing because we never really see them properly. It will be interesting to see how Villeneuve handles Blade Runner 2049 (due to screen next year), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic, Blade Runner.
When twelve vast grey alien ‘shells’ appear in different parts of the world the US military enlist the help of Dr Louise Banks (Adams) to translate the strange noises made by the aliens inside them. They want to know where they’re from, why they’re here and what they want. If this is peaceful first contact, why send twelve spacecraft instead of one?
Banks joins force with Jeremy Renner’s scientist to communicate with the aliens and to try to decipher their ‘language’, or ‘non-linear orthography’. By Day 25 of the Alien Crisis, amidst worldwide unrest, with China and Russia mobilising their forces, Banks translates the words ‘offer weapon’, which only leads to more ambiguity and confusion. Are the aliens trying to set the world’s different countries against each other? This diplomatic stand-off requires a ‘non-zero sum gain’ solution, in which both sides ‘win’. But will Banks’ linguistic skills and human touch prevail?
The aliens themselves are memorably strange. They look like giant grey octopi, with elephant skin and starfish hands that squirt inky smoke rings. We only see these ‘heptopods’ through a veil of smoke so they escape ‘capture,’ just as the rorshach symbols they create add to their mystery.
When we first encounter them this discombobulating ‘otherness’ is emphasized by weird distortions in gravity and a queasy soundtrack: electronic rumbles, sonic booms and apocalyptic foghorn blasts. By the end these are replaced by swelling romantic strings, plot twists and corny dialogue, which threaten to undermine what has gone before. For a film about patience and understanding, Arrival ends in a hurry.