Arrival is thoughtful science fiction at its best


Arrival film poster

Arrival film poster

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, with a starring role for Amy Adams plus support from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

The director of Sicario (2015) and Prisoners (2013) has garnered a reputation for creating films with moral questions and he scores another palpable hit with a film that harks back to a more cerebral brand of science fiction that has been seen only rarely since the 1970s.

After seeking a science fiction film to direct, Villeneuve settled on an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Story of Your Life”.

On the face of it, the plot of the film appears to be taken directly from a well-explored 1950s American B-movie trope that has ‘arrived’ on the scene with a certain resonance given recent world events.

From a distance it looks an awful lot like a mix between the plot of Independence Day (1996) and the less well known Michael Crichton adaptation Sphere (1998).

Alien space craft appear at 12 locations across planet Earth and world governments try to communicate with the mysterious craft, shaped like giant curvy obelisks that seemingly defy gravity, with differing reactions from each country.

The Chinese and Russians are labelled as aggressors, increasingly likely to provoke what could be an alien invasion and the possible end of humanity as teams around the world struggle to communicate with the aliens.

The American approach is also threatened by a shady CIA operative (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) who puts pressure on the experienced yet world-weary Army Colonel in charge (Whitaker) to suspend the combined science and linguistics team run by Renner and Adams, after assuming the aliens mean harm.

Arrival up there with Contact and Interstellar

So far so stereotypical, but if you liked Contact (1997) and Interstellar (2014) like I did then you certainly won’t be let down by Arrival which at first viewing seems to offer a very intimate and engaging script.

Director Villeneuve brings a distilled approach to the two hour running time, with some stylised cinematography both highlighting Adams’ isolation, the panic around the world at the worsening situation, and also driving forward the storyline which goes from mystery and curiosity to a dawning realisation that this film is not what you initially thought it was.

Characterisation plays a major part of the plot from the start. Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist whose curious introduction appears to be a shorthand way of defining her outlook from the start but will soon become increasingly important to the conclusion.

Multiple oscar nominee Adams, who has had an eclectic career to date, is given a lot to do in Arrival and does the role huge justice thanks to the script.

There’s precious few other named characters given significant screen time but importantly the clever use of science fiction short-hand coupled with a well crafted script meant the only character I felt we should have seen more of was Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist.

Villeneuve will soon be helming the forthcoming sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (currently called Blade Runner 2049) and, on the evidence of Arrival, the long-awaited film is in safe hands.