Arrival is based on an online short-story called ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang which was first published in 1998 and then again in 2002 in Chiang’s collection of short stories. The film was adapted by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve. The story explores the arrival of 8 different vessels who have suddenly appeared all over the world. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic lecturer and Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a theoretical physicist are approached by Colonel G.T.Weber (Forest Whitaker) to understand these new arrivals, and to find an answer to questions such as “What is your purpose on Earth?”.
Arrival is a combination of some of the best elements of intelligent science fiction. It wonderfully balances a story of the introduction of extra-terrestrial life, with a very human narrative drive at the core of the film, utilising them for ambitious means. Though many big blockbuster films also attempt to explore this, far too many of them are driven by guns, violence and the destruction of so many buildings and cities, so it’s often difficult to have a clear perception of events, or quite frankly to even care. Not that empathy is required, as more often than not these films tend to have little substance more than a fun man vs intruder theme.
Arrival is something altogether far more profound than the standard big blockbuster, popcorn shovelling film. Language is the focus of the interaction between the humans and Aliens as Louise Banks, and Ian Donnelly try to establish a linguistic connection. Language is such a beautiful complex thing. Very little in life has such rich depth, such history and such substance as language. Which is why I found this film to be so particularly compelling and engaging, though for my personal preference I would have preferred a few more scenes exploring the complexity of the subject.
The absolute core of Louise’s story and one that is most prominent is one of a complex philosophical nature, but one I won’t discuss for fear that I may accidently reveal even the most minor of hints to those of you who have not seen this film. The only thing I will say, is that although the film is focused almost exclusively on language with a side helping of science, there is a very realistic perception prominent throughout, which is superbly orchestrated by the director and provides a clever grounding for the film.
The cinematography is simply gorgeous with breathtaking landscape shots that are potentially some of my favourite in cinema. This film deserves to be showcased in the highest quality, so Blue-ray is a must. Visually, every moment, every piece of design and nearly every camera movement is profound and stunning. When combined with the music this film presents something really quite unique and certainly magnificent to behold, but one that is more importantly built upon intellectual material and substance with rich depth. Chris Nolan fans will no doubt enjoy this film and feel a familiarity with some of the more aggressive pieces of music.
Arrival won its only Oscar for sound editing, and though the music is powerful, fitting and compliments the film almost perfectly, I do feel the final piece of music is quite monosyllabic. Though this may be me being overly critical there, as besides this moment, and my own personal desire for there to have been more scenes examining the explanation of language, this film in my eyes is nearly flawless.
Arrival contains within its rich content some of my favourite moments in science fiction, and possibly cinema. A small confession, I did watch this film twice before I sat down to write this review, as not only am in awe of it but the film does require several viewings. It is a testament to the director Denis Villeneuve and his team that the moment where the two leading protagonists, Louise and Ian first enter the vessel, is as astounding on first viewing as it is on the second.
My faith has been restored in the cast’s abilities, who are all very good, but in particular, I needed some form of reassurance of Amy Adams choices who I last saw in Nocturnal Animals. Though I know her to be a great actress, my faith in her ability to choose great projects needed reassuring, I love her work but I don’t think I could expose my mind to another rendition of Nocturnal Animals.
Now, a question for you, is Forrest Whittaker a good actor? I ask because it has honestly reached a point in my viewing relationship with him that I can no longer tell. I know he is critically acclaimed and has appeared in a number of award-winning films, but I am not altogether convinced that he chooses character’s that aren’t overly dissimilar from one another and thus allowing him to display the same level of intensity each time. Something far too many actors are guilt of. There’s just something off about him every time I see him that I can’t quite place my finger on.
Some of you may be sceptical regarding Arrival’s story of interacting with aliens through language as perhaps it seems familiar to you. I am referring of course to the 1977 film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, which would not be an unfair comparison to make. Both film explores communication with the Aliens via some form of language. Literally in Arrival’s case and through music in ‘The Third Kind’; however, whether it can be argued that this simply an updated version of the same concept, or a variation. I assure you that there is more than enough substance in Arrival for this film for it to stand on its own two feet and be worth your time.
Denis Villeneuve will next be directing possibly one of the most pivotal projects in science fiction cinema history, Blade Runner 2049, the squeal to the original 1982 ‘Blade Runner’. If Arrival is any indicator of Villeneuve’s skill as a director, I think we are in quite capable hands.
‘Story of Your Life’ the short story this film is based on can be found online as a PDF.
**** A fantastic piece of intelligent science fiction, really well designed with an emotionally provocative and engaging philosophical narrative. Denis Villeneuve has created something really quite special here with the help of course of ‘Story of Your Life’.
RECOMMENDATION – Find your biggest high definition screen, and your best sound system in order to become fully immersed. I think there is enough substance for all to be enthralled by this.