Close Encounters Of The Third Kind regarded its alien visitors with childlike awe. But what if our first contact with extraterrestrials proved so jarring, such a shock to our collective psyche, that our brains struggled to even cope with the paradigm shift? A generation old enough to remember 9/11 will know how it feels to witness an event and know the world has changed forever; Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival carries the same monumental weight. The alien ships descend, and nothing will be quite the same again.
As our planet struggles to work out the intentions of 12 gigantic, pebble-shaped craft hovering over its surface, US Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) turns to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) for help. What do the aliens want? Are they peaceful visitors or invaders? Is it even possible to accurately communicate with a species so different from our own? Other countries are trying to come up with their own answers to those questions, and as tensions across the globe begin to mount, the possibility of a third world war begins to rear its head.
From a brief yet profoundly affecting short story by Ted Chiang, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heiserer craft a hypnotic sci-fi mystery. The cast is small, yet the scale feels huge; where Chiang’s tale dealt matter-of-factly with the arrival of extra-terrestrials, Villeneuve gives his visitation a palpable sense of the uncanny. Indeed, one of the great accomplishments of the director’s adaptation is in making a story about scientists trying to communicate with aliens so cinematic. Chiang’s narrative largely took place in a military tent; Arrival delicately, intelligently broadens its scope, making it visual while still preserving the emotional intimacy which made the short story so powerful.
Working with a variety of cinematographers, Villeneuve has long shown an unfailing ability to generate tension from stark images: the dystopian atmosphere of Toronto skyscrapers in the captivatingly bizarre Enemy, a heart-stopping traffic jam in Sicario. In Arrival, photographer Bradford Young (who made JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year look so beautifully desolate) shoots the hovering ships and military camps beneath them with a cool, sober eye, contrasting these with the warm glow of Banks’ memories, shot in Malick-like mid-shots and close-ups. Similarly, Johann Johannson’s score moves between the lushly contemplative to the jarringly alien, reflecting the film’s theme of choking back fear and pressing on into the unknown.
The result is a sci-fi film filled with suspense, tenderness and thought-provoking ideas. Amy Adams is magnificent as the linguist at the centre of a world-changing event; Jeremy Renner turns in a quiet, introspective supporting performance as a mathematician brought in to help solve the visitors’ mysteries. The interplay between the two, as they seek to understand an unfathomably complex alien language, feels effortlessly natural; as well as a sci-fi movie, Arrival functions as an astutely observed relationship drama.
That Arrival moves at a measured pace, and requires a certain amount of work from its audience to keep up with its more complex ideas, may alienate it from movie-goers who prefer their sci-fi served up with more bombast. But as a piece of filmmaking, as a movie that tries to imagine so vividly what first contact might look like and what the fall-out might be, Arrival is pretty much unique in 21st century cinema. It dares to deal with the kind of hefty themes literary sci-fi readers will appreciate, and which are explored all-too rarely in all but the most low-budget genre films. Somehow, Villeneuve managed to get such a movie made at this level, with an exemplary cast, which is quite an achievement in itself.
There’s so much more to be written and discussed about Arrival, but it’s best discovered first-hand than spoiled in a review. Its sounds and images have the kind of power that makes them hang like cobwebs in the mind for days. Its performances – particularly from Amy Adams – are quiet yet also deeply moving. The film’s events are, I suspect, going to be talked about and pondered over for a long time to come.
The sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once wrote that, if we were to encounter an alien technology that was sufficiently advanced, it would be indistinguishable from magic. Arrival imagines a meeting of humans and extraterrestrials that is terrifying, awe-inspiring, and even perception-shattering. As a piece of filmmaking, it too is like a work of magic.
Arrival is out in UK cinemas on the 11th November.