Our writers’ favourite film of the year? Step forward the quite wonderful Arrival…
The oval ships, smooth as pebbles, hang in the sky like giant question marks. Are they harmless or are they weapons of war? Are their occupants invaders or benign messengers? As our planet’s leaders scramble for answers, it’s up to Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to bridge what seems like an impossible divide: the language barrier between humans and an alien race whose very perceptions differ wildly from our own.
In adapting Doug Chiang’s Story Of Your Life, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer faced a translation problem of their own: how to make a compact tale about linguistics in any way cinematic? Together, they managed to work out an elegant solution: expand the genre elements on the fringes of the story – the ships, the aliens, the Cold War tension – while retaining its delicate, emotional hub.
The result is a rare example of a sci-fi movie that is as intelligent as it is beautiful to look at. Through his recent films Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy and last year’s Sicario, Villeneuve has honed a visual style that is at once understated and immediately striking. The alien ships descend not with the bombast of, say, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, but with a cool matter-of-factness: together with cinematographer Bradford Young, Villeneuve crafts such unforgettable images as a grey ship shrouded in billowing sheets of autumn mist, or the silhouettes of alien forms moving behind an oblong window. (It’s worth pointing out that none of these images were described in Chiang’s book; there, the craft never physically appeared, and Dr Banks conversed with the aliens via a magic mirror in a tent.)
Through a careful use of contrasts – vast landscapes and intimate interiors, the cold everyday and the warm glow of Dr Banks’ memories – Arrival creates a sense of its own reality as immersive as The Day The Earth Stood Still must have felt when its silver disc descended on a Washington baseball field back in the 1950s. Together with Johann Johannson’s unearthly score, Arrival provides a believable idea of what first contact might look and feel like: a meeting between two species who at first seem so opposite from one another that there can never be any understanding between them.
Arrival’s masterstroke, though, is that it isn’t really about aliens, but rather about human experience and what drives us as a species. In the face of old age, sickness and disease, we press on into an unknown future, making friends, falling in love, bearing children, living, dying. Even if the veil of uncertainty were lifted, Arrival suggests, we’d still do all those things because we’re impelled to by our very nature.
At the heart of all these images and rich themes, there’s Amy Adams’ performance holding everything together. She’s ably supported by Jeremy Renner as Dr Banks’ mathematician colleague, and Forest Whitaker as a representative of the US military, but make no mistake – this is overwhelmingly Adams’ film. Her performance is entirely of a piece with Villeneuve’s own filmmaking style: her character’s emotions are buried deep beneath her intellectual armour, but the sadness, compassion and scientific curiosity still radiate from Dr Banks’ face.
Dr Banks’ curiosity repeatedly drives her on, besting her fear of the unknown and allowing her to observe the aliens’ behaviour intelligently while the rest of the planet, it seems, is borders on hysteria. Thanks to the mix of astute filmmaking and pitch-perfect performances, Arrival makes long scenes of communication between human and alien, problem solving and theorising feel as engrossing – and, towards the end, exciting – as any action thriller.
Above all, Arrival provides a welcome glimmer of hope at a time when the real world feels like a political powder keg. Through patient communication, the film suggests, there can be peace and unity between nations. Arrival wraps all these thoughtful ideas up in a thrilling, fascinating and stunning-looking genre film – and that’s why it’s emerged as our favourite cinema experience of 2016.