Five minutes into Arrival and audiences have already been taken on a devastatingly emotional roller coaster that sets you up for one of the best films of 2016.
A series of flashbacks see Louise (Amy Adams) as she gives birth to her daughter, watches her grow up and eventually succumb to leukaemia. What’s even more impressive is that every bit of dialogue is seeding the eventual payoff to come in the film’s climax; but at no point does it feel forced, just incredibly natural and poignant.
From there, the film jumps to Louise as an established linguistics professor, as she’s called by Colonel G.T. Weber (Whitaker), paired with theoretical physicist Ian (Renner), she is tasked with translating and initiating a dialogue with one of the twelve alien spaceships that have suddenly appeared on Earth.
What’s so refreshing about Arrival is that it’s a far-cry from the usual first contact films, where we’re dealt a male action hero who must inevitably kick some alien ass. Instead, we get a thoughtful and intellectual story about breaking down barriers with another race and an overview of humanity and how hard it seems to be for us to work together as a species. What follows is a story full of hope and optimism, that stresses that life is about the journey and not the destination. This is accompanied by an elegant and powerful soundtrack that dances between bombastic pieces heralding the presence of the aliens, and subtler gentler tunes that reflect the film’s deeply personal moments. It’s not surprising, then, that the film won the Oscar for best sound editing.
Furthermore, it’s not overloaded with CGI like a lot of first contact films. While the aliens and their ships provide some spectacle, the real beauty in this film is the rolling shots of planet Earth itself. Through this exploration of how humanity might approach an alien race, we’re reminded time and again that this planet we live on is perhaps just as spectacular as anything we might hope to find in the stars.
The film clocks out at just under two hours, and in that time, this reviewer believes there is only one point that might bother audiences. But to explain it, we’ll have to quickly dip into spoiler territory:
[SPOILERS – You can check out our spoiler-free review here]
Beyond the beauty and the vast array of emotions that this film brings, perhaps the most fascinating and exciting point is when Louise truly starts to understand and communicate with the alien ‘heptapods’. Throughout the film, questions are raised about whether the heptapods’ intentions are hostile, and this culminates when one of them expresses a desire for a weapon.
The twist is that this is a miscommunication on humanity’s part: the aliens are offering a tool, the way they perceive time, something that can be learned by studying their language. These aliens perceive time as non-linear, and it is at this point that you realise that, due to her time working with these aliens, that Louise, and thus the audience, is seeing the narrative in a non-linear order and that her departed daughter has yet to be born.
This in itself is brutal and may well leave viewers feeling raw as the film goes on, but it’s not the problem. The problem is Louise must then use this new ability to stop a general in China from attacking the aliens by calling his personal number and reminding him of his wife’s dying words. The thing is, she only knows his number and said words because she’s met him in the future and he has relayed them to her, despite her having already called and shown that she has this knowledge in the past. Confusing, right?
It’s a clear paradox, and a point that feels like writer Eric Heisserer has written himself into a corner and couldn’t think his way out of it. On first viewing, it is somewhat jarring and threatens to take audiences out of the film. Why would General Chang tell Louise something that he should believe she already knows? Sure, they explain it to a degree, but the explanation doesn’t feel all that concrete.
On a second viewing, however – when you’re expecting it – it’s a much easier pill to swallow.
[END OF SPOILERS]
And while that plot point itself isn’t perfect, the film as a whole is a masterpiece. It’s original, strikingly beautiful and amazingly powerful. Arrival is the reason we go to the movies.
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Scr: Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg & Tzi Ma
Prd: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine & David Linde
DOP: Bradford Young
Music: Johann Johannsson
Runtime: 116 Minutes
Arrival is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.