Film review - Arrival: All hail the arrival of film of the year
This enthralling, slow-burning sci-fi mystery is a new twist on the alien invasion
Most movie aliens arrive on earth with a bang, firing guns, breaking things and noisily threatening our destruction, but in Denis Villeneuve's Arrival they barely make a sound. Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, a linguist and college professor who seems to be dealing with a private tragedy when she's distracted by something big. In scenes cleverly reminiscent of 9/11, people rush towards the nearest television screen and stare silently, mouths agape, as they watch an unfolding global emergency.
Huge, egg-shaped crafts have appeared at various points around the world and hover ominously 50 feet above the ground. When no communication is forthcoming, the Chinese and Russians start threatening to attack. America's generals are all for opening fire too, but meanwhile Washington assembles a team of scientists to contact our uninvited guests and find out what's going on. Dr Banks, and a physicist called Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are among the boffins flown to a rural camp in the shadow of one of the crafts.
Scientists have figured out that the alien crafts are monitoring our world, but all attempts to contact them using radio have failed. So a task force led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) dons protective suits and masks and drives out to the base of the spaceship. Lifted up by a crane, they find a doorway in the side, scale the interior and reach a long room with a giant white screen at the other end.
Behind the glass, huge unearthly shapes appear, making ominous clicking sounds and waving what look like giant arms or tentacles in the air. When they begin drawing wild shapes with recurring patterns on the glass, Louise Banks realises it's the written form of their language, and starts making frantic notes.
Soon she's come up with a rough vocabulary, is able to communicate using their signs, and becomes convinced they're gentle, non war-like. Time is running out, however, and while politicians watch and wait, the public clamours for violent action.
One of the cleverest things about Mr Villeneuve's film, which is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is how little it bothers to explain about the aliens. The more you try to give an extraterrestrial a back story, the more silly and risible a film becomes, but in Arrival we know as little as the protagonists, and only begin to understand what's happening as they do.
A tricky but ultimately satisfying storyline explores the mysteries of time and space, but in a much more poetic and less literal-minded way than Christopher Nolan did in 'Interstellar'. Arrival never gets bogged down in science, and on a budget of $50million is not exactly coming down with special effects.
In CGI's place Mr Villeneuve substitutes imagination, and uses sight and sound to draw us into his bewitchingly zen alien invasion. The scenes in which Banks and Donnelly bond with the outlanders are gorgeous to look at, and the whole film has a deliriously dream-like feel. I've been careful not to give anything away, because the plot contains cunning twists that jolt you awake, and really make you think. And there are also intriguing explorations of how the language we speak shapes and circumscribes our thought.
Mr Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg all perform with commendable restraint in a film that's all about suppressed tension, but it's Amy Adams who dominates almost every scene. After a quiet few years, Ms Adams is ending 2016 in storming form. She was the best thing by far about Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, which we discussed last week, and gives this movie a real emotional centre by means which will become clear when you watch it. And it should be seen on the biggest screen you can find, because Arrival is one of those rare films that's truly cinematic in its intentions.
Mr Villeneuve, whose credits include 'Incendies', 'Prisoners' and 'Sicario', has been hovering on the edge of brilliance for quite a few years. But he's surpassed himself here, because Arrival is a kind of masterpiece.
Films coming soon...
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight); Indignation (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts); The Innocents (Agata Kulesza, Lou de Laage); Gimme Danger (Iggy Pop).