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USA 2016
Directed by
Denis Villeneuve
116 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications after 12 unidentified flying objects land on Earth.

There’s no doubt that Denis Villeneuve’s film is a cinematic experience. Exactly what that experience is, is less easy to say. Arrival is not the film for anyone wanting good ol’ kick-ass War Of The Worlds-style sci-fi action or the Spielbergian sentimentalities of Robert Zemeckis' Contact let alone Spielberg's own hokey story of extra-terrestrial contact, Close Encounter Of The Third Kind, but is rather a thoughtful consideration of a staple theme of science fiction.

Recalling in its restraint Robert Wise’s 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (remade to much lesser effect in 2008) but upgraded with the best of modern film technology, Denis Villeneuve’s engrossing work looks at how we human beings might respond to a visitation from outer space. Whilst the time-honoured rush to the gun rack is a response that is always present it is in the background in a story in which the powers-that-be, remarkably, try intelligent engagement instead of naked aggression as a way of dealing with the unknown.

Which is where Amy Adams’ expert linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, comes in, her skills in language interpretation and translation being needed to decipher what is the purpose of the alien’s visit (she is given a colleague, a physicist, played by Jeremy Renner, but it’s pretty much all Louise’s show). With what I assume is good science, the film is substantially given over to describing how Louise establishes communication with the extra-terrestrials, a process going well beyond the simplistic problem-solving ruses that sci-fi films usually rely on. Linguists should see this film.  For better or worse perhaps, but how many times has their profession gotten the big screen treatment, let alone in this depth? 

Despite the egg-head material Villeneuve keeps the intensity ratcheted up as on the one hand, we are never sure how the Heptapods, scarily huge squid-like creatures shrouded in mist and sealed behind a transparent wall are going to react, or on the other, when the patience of the world’s military brass, who are itching to take the aliens down with extreme prejudice, will crack.  This sense of tension is helped by Bradford Young’s moody cinematography and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's foreboding score (aided by opening and closing music by post-minimalist composer, Max Richter) which is seamlessly integrated in the brilliantly effective sound design.

This main scenario is interwoven with a secondary theme that deals with Louise’s loss of her teenage daughter to cancer. Louise, understandably, is traumatized by her loss and this emotional undercurrent feeds into her grueling experience with the Heptapods, creatures, in another sense, from the beyond. This sub-plot adds emotional depth to the basic sci-fi story and Louise’s function within it (with Adams giving a typically fine performance) but in the final act it becomes a full-blown part of the alien’s design with what have appeared to have been Louise's memories appearing in a very different light, one which implies a more complex structure to the film than the narrative has led us to believe.  A second viewing rewards in this respect whilst no doubt there will be quite a few people making a mental note to check out Ted Chiang’s novella "Story of Your Life" upon which the film is based to see how the author articulated the weave of ideas. If much credit seems attributable to this work, Villeneuve's tranposition of it to the big screen is a marvellous achievement from one of our leading contemporary film-makers.




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