Film review: Arrival
Director Denis Villeneuve has been making something of a name for himself recently for mastering gritty, intense and suspenseful thrillers (see Prisoners and Sicario for example). It was intriguing, therefore, to discover that he has branched out into Sci-Fi here with Arrival, in which 12 alien spacecraft descend on Earth and station themselves at random locations across the globe. True to form, however, Villeneuve delivers one of the most intelligent, creative and insightful Sci-Fi movies of recent times.
In Arrival, a language expert, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must analyse and decipher what the aliens are saying. As she spends more time with the aliens, she is haunted by the memories of what happened to her daughter, Hannah, which is revealed in a heartbreaking opening sequence accompanied by Banks’ narration as she explains that “there are days that define your story beyond your life.”
This notion of the predetermined, as well as the recurrence of Hannah, becomes a metaphor for one of the key questions of this story; would you do anything to change your life when you know what is going to happen?
Villeneuve manages to enhance this notion further with superb use of imagery. The spacecrafts are colossal, frightening, looming structures that hover above the ground yet are almost featureless beyond their unusual lens-like shape. The aliens are huge; so big in fact that we only ever see their bottom halves. Both designs serve as a reminder that there is a much bigger force at play affecting our lives. Meanwhile, Villeneuve creates an element of mystery behind these shapes and designs; what is inside these strange, hovering objects? What do the aliens look like in their entirety? In providing the audience with visual reminders of the unknown, Villeneuve also manages to imply that whilst our stories may be ‘defined’, we don’t necessarily know how or why.
If there is one flaw with Arrival, it is a minor one in that as it reaches its conclusion, we discover the real reason why the aliens have come to Earth. Whilst the build up to this point is intelligently and exquisitely formulated, the basis of their purpose feels surprisingly weak and short-sighted. Ironically, despite the film being so adept at developing the theme of life being already defined, it perhaps needed to be another 10 minutes or so longer so that the audience could obtain some degree of closure on the impact of the aliens’ invasion.
Otherwise, Arrival is a majestic, beautifully created piece of cinema that is steeped in melancholy and flows with a real elegance. There are plenty of comparisons to be made to this, including Interstellar and Inception (the spacecraft tunnel scenes are very much reminiscent of the latter), and also Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. However, Arrival feels that bit more taut, succinct and complete, almost effortless in its delivery and more profound with its message.