Alien Invasion, Aliens, American Hustle, Amy Adams, Arrival, Denis Villeneuve, Enemy, Film, Film Review, Forest Whitaker, Heptapods, Her, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Movie, Movie Review, Prisoners, Sicario, The Avengers, The Hurt Locker, The Last King of Scotland
“Arrival” is a science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Enemy”, “Sicario”) which focuses on what it would be like to make first contact with an alien species; starring Amy Adams (“Her”, “American Hustle”), Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”, “The Avengers”), and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”). “Arrival” isn’t what you would call a traditional alien invasion blockbuster, as instead of focusing on the human effort to rally against a foreign species it casts its eye on humanity itself and our lack of unity in the face of possible disaster. As Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) explains in the trailer ‘we’re a world with no single leader; it’s impossible to deal with just one of us’.
We follow Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist recruited by the American government at the start of the film to communicate with the visitors, (who become known as Heptapods), as she attempts to understand what the intentions of the aliens are. Banks is able to make progress in this endeavour by first establishing how the aliens communicate rather than jumping in with the million dollar question – Why Are You Here? – using her knowledge of linguistics to teach the aliens each component of the question before actually asking it.
This approach is time consuming and deliberate and as such “Arrival” may not appeal to all cinemagoers, but the film’s pacing allows the audience to come to their own conclusions as to why the aliens have come to earth, creating tension without presenting conflict on screen. In my opinion action sequences would’ve drastically altered the feel of the film and hurt it as a whole, whereas Villeneuve’s focused approach gave the overarching message of “Arrival” clarity.
This is a film which is about more than simply how humanity would deal with an alien invasion – it examines how we as a species have created a reality in which we treat each other as alien. As a species we don’t have a universal language and our customs and cultures inform how we interact with other people; this is most clearly demonstrated in the movie by the fact that the Chinese use mahjong (a card-based game traditionally played in Asia) as a framework for communicating with the Heptapods, which in turn creates a competitive and confrontational dynamic between them. The fact that these customs divide us as a species means that there are no mechanisms in place which dictate what we should do if we’re faced with an issue that affects us all, and this is ultimately the message behind “Arrival”.
As the film progresses the purpose of the film becomes increasingly obvious to the audience, and thus a lot of intrigue is lost as there’s only one ending that can effectively serve the themes that Villeneuve wants to explore. Still, this isn’t to say that I disliked how “Arrival” ended; it’s merely to state that in my opinion the third act is the weakest part of the film. Part of me does wonder whether or not Villeneuve focused too narrowly on the moral of the story as opposed to providing a coherent conclusion, but I don’t think that this ruined the film by any stretch of the imagination.
“Arrival” is an interesting take on a genre which has been explored many times before, and it’s one of the more visually striking movies I’ve seen this year. Its focus on the division within humanity gave it a clear narrative thread, and understated but emotional performances from Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner made for a captivating experience. For me this is Villeneuve’s most complete film to date, as it maintains the impressive visuals and tension of his previous films whilst also presenting its message in a clear and intelligible way. This message is made all the more poignant in today’s divided political landscape, and thus “Arrival” is not only entertaining but also extremely relevant.