Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
After a summer stuffed with so many subpar sequels and uninspired special effects fests, it’s refreshing to finally find a film that tells an original tale and provokes thought in the process. Not to be confused with the obscure but underrated mid-nineties invasion movie starring Charlie Sheen, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival demonstrates that you don’t need an abundance of action and explosions to make a mesmerising sci-fi movie.
The film follows linguist Louise Banks as she’s recruited by the American government to help facilitate first contact between Earth and an extraterrestrial race who show up at twelve random locations around the world without any apparent rhyme or reason. A substantial portion of the plot revolves around the slow and often arduous process of trying to establish a dialogue between two disparate species. This may sound mundane, but the documentary-like manner in which the attempts at communication are presented is extremely arresting.
A lot of intrigue also arises from the fact that the appearance, mentality and technology of the visitors are very definitively “alien”. This is a welcome departure from the humanoid invaders who appear in most movies of the genre and makes the efforts to interact with our cosmic counterparts all the more compelling. Their enigmatic nature and the eventual reveal of their purpose in being here challenges popular perceptions of space-time in a way that’s very intellectually stimulating.
Although, despite being a captivatingly credible take on what would happen were aliens to suddenly descend upon the planet, Arrival is really more of a multi-layered look at the way in which our own species functions. The revelation that we’re not alone in the universe, quite believably, brings to light the best and worst attributes of humanity.
It’s not difficult to imagine the film’s depiction of widespread panic and looting coming to pass in such a situation, while its portrayal of the political ramifications is also well-handled. No one nation comes across as having the moral high ground. Each administration acts fairly appropriately based on the information at hand, but the choices made by some individuals illustrate how worryingly rash our race can be as a result of fear of the unknown.
However, what really drives Arrival forward is the personal plight of its protagonist, Doctor Louise Banks. Played to perfection by Hollywood heavyweight Amy Adams, the film gets viewers invested in the talented translator by teasing out aspects of her life beyond her present preoccupation. Through her interactions with the aliens, she learns an enlightening lesson about treasuring the time you have rather than worrying about what the future holds and her resultant arc is as uplifting as it is heartrending.
The acclaimed actress also enjoys good chemistry with co-star Jeremy Renner, who provides her linguist with a likable scientific foil in the form of astrophysicist Ian Donnelly. The two characters complement each other quite well as they work together to unravel the mystery of the aliens’ intentions on Earth.
Forest Whitaker rounds out the main cast as the wary but reasonable army colonel, Weber. Even though he essentially just serves as the avatar of the armed forces, there’s a sense of sophistication to this seasoned soldier due to his willingness to listen to what Banks and Donnelly have to say rather than go in guns blazing.
Surprisingly, the aliens themselves actually end up feeling like fairly well-developed characters too. The director does a good job of demonstrating that they’re not just interchangeable automatons by displaying their personalities through their unique exchanges with Banks and having Donnelly endow them with affectionate nicknames.
The only disappointing facet of the film is its failure to elaborate upon a key question that arises after Banks ascertains the reason for the advent of the aliens, but this doesn’t deprive the story of a sufficiently satisfying resolution. Arrival succeeds in using the concept of an extraterrestrial encounter to effectively analyse how we handle our hopes and fears and does so in a relatable way by employing its protagonist as a proxy to provide perspective on what’s truly important in life. This, combined with its remarkably realistic sci-fi elements, should leave viewers with a lot to contemplate when the credits roll.
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