Every year there seems to be one science fiction movie that gets a bit of marketing and limelight. Last year was Matt Damon’s The Martian, and the year before that was the mind bending Christopher Nolan directed Interstellar. This year, it’s Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted from the short story “Story of your life”. While both Martian and Interstellar reached for the stars, Arrival tells a more low key story which threatens to explode. But as we delve into a new busy period of movie releases, should Arrival be at the top of your list?
Arrival tells the story of Louise Banks, a professor and linguist who is called in by the military to help decipher a new language when alien ships appear across the globe. Tension grows as they try to communicate and other countries start to react to the presence of extra-terrestrial life in different ways. It’s a well paced narrative that drops pieces of information along the way, allowing the audience to form their own understanding of what is going on while Louise is as well.
What Arrival manages to do to great effect is draw you in to the situation. This is not a Hollywood alien invasion story, it’s a look at humanity where the discussion is merely created and influenced by the presence of a foreign being. It’s slow and purposeful in its storytelling, and rides the ‘science’ edge of science fiction while balancing personal and global narratives without ever getting overwhelmed in one way or another.
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both utterly fantastic in their roles. Amy carries the brunt of the film, acting as both the audience avatar and as a crucial step in the process of communicating with the aliens, in what is for me her best performance yet. Renner provides a necessary secondary role for Amy to bounce off of, lightens the mood when it’s required and despite Amy being the audience avatar Renner’s role tends to play a more relatable character.
There are some impressive visuals, and while they serve to build upon the emotional scope of the film it doesn’t rely on these visuals. The aliens themselves are interesting, both them and their ship seem to have been kept purposefully simple by design so as to allow the focus to be on the meaning and the narrative. This is a movie where the message takes front and centre stage, especially as more of the narrative becomes clearer. The alien’s method of communication is well thought out and fascinating to take in, and there is a surprising level of enjoyment in watching the characters try to make sense of it all.
There isn’t so much a twist here, but rather an unraveling of the primary concepts of the film. You start off like the main protagonist, clutching at pieces of information and erratic points with no clear connecting point, and as information is revealed and the story progresses, those pieces start to fit together. Unlike some movies that go down this route, everything more or less ends up being laid out at the end of the movie, but for those who work the movie out earlier you’re rewarded by seeing the movie utilise those points – interpreting it in a way – serving as an apt metaphor for the movie itself. I can see some people not accepting the path the story goes down towards the end, but it is well executed and ties everything together nicely.
There are a couple of moments where it feels like something happens strictly for the sake of tension. It’s not necessarily unrealistic – in fact the film does a great job of feeling grounded and believable within the context of a clearly science fiction movie – but you question whether or not it really would have happened like that if it wasn’t scripted. It’s a small nitpick, and is far from a deal-breaker, but given the nature of the story’s plot, it kind of feels artificial.
There’s generally one or two smart sci films that raise their head every year, and it’s always a relief when they get a decent level of marketing. Arrival tackles the concept of first contact in a measured and engaging way, and while it also tries to deal with international politics, the focus never rears too far away from the more localised story, especially as multiple arcs bridge into one. Arrival is deceptively engrossing, and has honestly put a strong case forward for my personal movie of the year.