Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlberg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky
Written by: Eric Heisserer and (based on the short story “Story of Your Life”) Ted Chiang
Running Time: 116 mins
Release date: 10th November 2016
There have been many alien invasion movies so do we really need a new one and if we do, what do you do to make it stand out among an already crowded field? You do exactly what director Denis Villeneuve has done with his latest film, Arrival. You fill it with emotion, make it intelligent and underplay the whole thing, allowing it to get under your skin and add an Oscar-worthy lead performance from an actress at the top of her game.
Dr Louise Banks is a top linguistic expert who is brought in by the American military to translate a communication from a mysterious alien craft that has landed in Montana. One of 12 ships around the world, Banks has to enter the heart of the object to make contact with the creatures from another world. As the planet is on the brink of war, Banks and scientist Ian Donnelly, have a race against time to make contact while understanding the reasons for their arrival.
Villeneuve delivers an enormous emotional punch within the first 10 minutes of the film that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We are kept in suspense about the new arrivals for quite a while and when they are finally introduced, it isn’t in a bombastic way but quietly and almost in a matter-of-fact way. This stays nicely in touch with how the film plays out. It never crosses the line of loud and spectacular. If you are looking for Independence Day effects, look elsewhere. This isn’t that kind of film.
In fact, this is a film that may have aliens but isn;t about aliens. The pace of the film reflects the emotion of the piece. It moves slowly, never rushing, allowing the audience to drink in the feelings and thoughts of its central character. It’s a film about communication, about grief, about loss. It’s also surprisingly uplifting. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film that has a similar feel, Villeneuve’s doesn’t lose his audience after the third act. Instead, he ups the emotions which leave you in total wonderment while trying to control the tears.
As well as the terrific performances, the film does have a strong card in the soundtrack from Johann Johannsson. A surreal sound wall that, while capturing the beauty of the tale, manages to fill the cinema with mystery and suspense. It might not be the kind of music that John Williams would produce, more like Philip Glass, yet it sits perfectly for the tone of the piece.
Villeneuve’s cast works wonders. Forest Whitaker, as the army officer who recruits Banks, feels unconventional compared to other film soldiers. No barking of orders. No shouting in the faces of others. Just a calm yet commanding presence that works perfectly for the level of intensity this film delivers. Jeremy Renner, as Ian, the scientist who helps Banks, provides most of the comic relief, as a man filled with sharp comeback lines when mentioning science, yet is as bemused and frightened as a young child.
However, the film belongs to Amy Adams as Banks. This is her crowning glory. A performance of depth and intelligence, yet she never has to take the emotions too far, always keeping them close to her heart. In Banks, she has created a fully rounded character who manages to break your heart without hardly doing anything within the first few minutes and who we follow throughout on this amazing journey. It is a fantastic performance and one that should definitely be leading the Oscar list come next March.
Arrival is everything you could want from a sci-fi drama. It’s smart, witty and tense, with the added bonus of tugging at the heart strings. A section of the genre which is more interested in the way we communicate than in finding ways to destroy. Villeneuve’s next film is the sequel to Blade Runner. On this evidence and on his previous film, the superb Sicario, it is in great and solid hands. This, however, is the best modern alien movie since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.