Before I talk about the film, I’ve linked below to a couple of other online pieces about it:
One, from thetalkhouse.com, is screenwriter Eric Heisserer describing the process he went through in adapting Ted Chiang’s book and the other is a Vulture article on the twist within the story (with spoilers).
I’m linking these because both describe aspects of the film better than I could and are worth a read.
As for my thoughts, my two pence below:
Arrival revolves around the appearance of 12 alien spaceships which suddenly appear in various locations across the globe. Amy Adams’ linguist is brought on board by the U.S. Army to communicate with the inhabitants of the ship hovering a few feet above American soil and understand why they’re here.
It’s a film about, among other weighty issues, communication and co-operation and, in that sense, it could not be more timely. Films are all all products of their time – be it content, language or look – but they do not necessarily say anything important about the era they’re from. Other than the CGI advancements, the Transformers series, for instance, could just as easily have been from the 90’s as the 2000’s; ditto Pirates of the Caribbean.
Many films though are a snapshot of history. Delve into a film and you’ll understand more about the period they were made. Look at Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); a film about the fear of people not being who they initially seem. It appeared a couple of years after the McCarthy trials and in the midst of the Cold War, where people could not be sure their neighbours weren’t Communists in disguise. Films about Godzilla and other gigantic monsters were inspired by a fear of nuclear proliferation and apocalypse; The Matrix riffed on fear of technology in the era of the Millennium Bug.
Into this conversation comes Arrival. It’s an incredibly uncertain time, when international relations are especially strained; when people vote for Donald Trump or Brexit on the back of scaremongering about ‘the other’, when the fear of apocalypse is probably closer than it’s been in the past 50 years.
Arrival plays on these themes and harnesses them. Unlike some of the films mentioned above though, it shies away from violence and terror. Indeed, part of the success of the film, from this reviewer’s perspective anyway, is that it plays into the liberal beliefs about working together and understanding what we can’t explain. It provides a comfort blanket against the reality outside of the multiplex. Anger and fear might be working out there just now, but in front of the screen Amy Adams is saving the world with patience, tolerance and understanding. It suggests that maybe, in the real world, we should do the same.
In that sense, the film might not have the crash, bang, wallop that some filmgoers will want from a sci-fi film, but it’s exactly the type of film we need right now.
The scenes with Adams’ Louise and the aliens are the most captivating of the picture. Heisserer is not afraid to delve into linguistics, to explain how Louise will communicate with the beings. Forrest Whittaker’s U.S. Army character asks the questions we as the audience are also asking, but the explanations don’t talk down to either him or us; it assumes a level of intelligence on the audience’s part – we’ll understand the general process, if not necessarily all the technical details. It also means that, once Louise finally converses with the Heptapods, we can join in with her excitement when her work begins to bear fruit.
Adams has been touted for an Oscar for her role and it would be entirely merited. She’s always good, but it’s terrific to see her hold a film practically on her own (even Jeremy Renner’s character is largely side-lined). Her actions – from the nerves before every contact, to the steel with which she completes her mission – are entirely believable. In a period of history where experts are routinely mocked or dismissed in the media, it’s also heartening to see such a person not only be portrayed as a hero, but a very human one.
Denis Villeneuve, who has made three of the best films in recent years (this, Sicario and Prisoners), lends a typical stillness to the proceedings. It’s a film that could have chased the blockbuster crowd with guns and action, but he’s clearly confident in both the story and his abilities to hold the attention without it. The twist adds a sucker-punch that’ll live with you long after you’ve left the cinema.
It’s also worth noting that Arrival also looks superb and the soundtrack from Johann Johannsson aids to the sense of oddness and discombobulation during those early scenes, much as his work on Sicario did.
In summary, Arrival is a beautiful, intelligent film and well worth your time.