ARRIVAL (Entertainment One)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Script. Eric Heisserer
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Plot: An alien invasion turns into an A-Level English Language lesson for aliens.
Last year, Denis Villeneuve released upon us Sicario, one of the most atmospheric and tense movies of the last few years, and this came as no surprise to all those watching the French-Canadian director’s rise over the past few years. Sicario followed Enemy, a criminally under-watched and inconceivably weird movie with Jake Gyllenhaal, and the brilliant Prisoners from three years ago now. Certainly for myself, a new Villeneuve film is automatically a must-watch: but with Arrival, Villeneuve’s attempt to dip into science fiction, I’ve been even more excitable than normal, to the point where I’ve had to sit in a dark room and literally calm down. Not only that, the buzz has been absolutely monumental – Arrival has been variously heralded for being a game-changer in science fiction, to one reviewer even saying the film has ‘invented a new visual language’. Better still, the word from some is that Arrival is so stunning it might even get a Best Picture nod at the Oscars.
Basically: do not adjust your sets and fasten your fucking seat-belts.
And Arrival, unsurprisingly, is a movie I greatly respect. This movie is breathtakingly good. But I couldn’t bring myself to adore it, to love it like many critics have been over the festival circuit: in a sense, its almost too brilliant, too clever for its own good. Pardon the oxymoron, but there are some movies that are operating on a level so much higher than we’ve been numbed into accepting by the summer blockbusters that they almost feel too constructed, too much like an academic exercise in filmmaking than a burst of cinematic passion. Arrival is fantastic – a thinking man’s science fiction movie, that knows its genre perfectly, and has a plot so clever and twisty some of the more dramatic revelations will actually cause you to fall back off of your seat into an endless mind-hole through which you question the very nature of reality and the fabric of the universe, all while screaming because you have to hit the floor soon, right? Wrong, because the alien spacecraft have their own artificial gravity too, so you’re just going to be left floating in the ether, left to ponder just how brilliant Arrival‘s storyline is at the brink of some kind of narrative-induced orgasm. But I couldn’t fall in love with it, I couldn’t quite take it to my heart like I wanted to. Arrival is a bit like a McDonald’s chicken nugget. I know that they taste very nice, and if offered one I wouldn’t hesitate to eat it again and again – but inside I am fully aware that they’ve been made unnaturally with artificial stuff put there to sweeten the flavour (I mean I’m still going to devour that thing but…wait why I am I nitpicking my own metaphor//)
One thing I should make abundantly clear, first off, is that Arrival is nothing like Independence Day: this is not an invasion film, in fact its probably the antithesis of such a thing, if there can ever be one. Arrival‘s…arrival (I can hear the wailing sirens of the unoriginality police now)…is a much more elegant affair, with twelve disturbingly other-worldly chrome semicircular vessels hovering an inch off the ground in the most off-putting image I’ve perhaps ever seen. It’s a shape that will make your skin crawl like a six month old child. And when the alien pods make their slow, co-ordinated movements, your skin will further grow into a one-year-old baby desperately attempting to walk unaided and digest real food. Once Villeneuve, an absolute master of creating atmosphere and tension, decides to mercifully relent on putting you through the wringer, this film becomes a character drama first and foremost, a genuinely quite affecting story of grief that will knock you sideways – oh, and Amy Adams has to teach English to space octopi, and also learn their language, a bizarre symbolical representation of what happens when you put a wet glass on some black paint and move it around a bit.
Villeneuve’s direction is absolutely immaculate: he is easily one of the best visual storytellers we have around, and he creates an atmosphere better than anybody. Arrival never lets up its tone (although it does have some pacing issues) and its fantastic to look at, shot strongly by cinematographer Bradford Young. I don’t think what Denis does on Arrival is quite as strong as his unbelievable direction on Sicario, although it really is like comparing two golden nuggets of directorial genius: I am constantly bawled over by Villeneuve’s work, and this is no exception, with purposeful camerawork and brilliant sequences that rely on wonder and mystery rather than fireballs and Wilhelm screams. My god is Arrival a palate cleanser – finally, this isn’t a movie in which there isn’t all out nuclear cataclysm or 20,000 superheroes fighting each other for no random reason. Arrival is a movie that feels like it has an agenda, feels like its fighting for something, feels more special than your typical summer fare.
Arrival tackles some really heavy stuff, adapted from a short story called ‘Story Of Your Life’ (which the film was originally called and remains titled on Google search, strangely), which tackles even heavier stuff, but Eric Heisserer’s immaculately written script somehow pulls out of the hat concepts and theories that would be a brick wall which the film’s audience would repeatedly smash into, again and again, into an absolutely tremendous story that is not only easy to follow, but really damn engaging. Heisserer’s script is something of a minor miracle: this script is flat-out excellent, the dialogue is well-chosen and purposeful, and you don’t notice Arrival‘s near two hour run time at all. Also, it would be criminal of me not to talk about the music and sound design, which should all be in the frame at the Dolby in February: Johann Johansson, Villeneuve’s preferred composer, writes a compelling and beautiful score, while the general use of sound is top-notch as well – an early sequence of Amy Adams trying to get about her day while the world panics over the aliens has sound design good enough to cause jump scares.
The only thing I would criticise here are the characters which are unfortunately quite bland, and this is a bit of an issue for a film that is essentially a character study that just so happens to take place under the backdrop of first contact. Louise, a linguist so good at weird human languages she must surely know some alien ones in the eyes of the U.S. Military (seen here represented by a Forest Whitaker accent so strange that its as if he was convinced he was still filming Rogue One, or had watched Jodie Foster’s performance in Elysium the night before), is played strongly by Amy Adams pulling double duty in this year’s Oscar race with the stunning Nocturnal Animals which I am absolutely still in love with, but while Amy’s subtle performance gets us to really sympathise with Louise’s grief, she feels like a blank slate to me. An intelligent and resilient blank slate, but still quite empty, and she doesn’t feel three-dimensional. Jeremy Renner’s character, a physicist named Ian whose worldview is at odds with Louise’s, struggles to even be one-dimensional however. Renner, who after showing up in so many Marvel movies to be invisible (he could have been in all of them without me noticing) has somehow not learnt from this, and has turned up to the Arrival set only to be told he’s playing Hawkeye in plaid, in so much as he could have honestly been taken out of the movie and it would have made virtually no difference. Renner isn’t bad at all, but once again his role has less meat to it than a vegan protest at Holland & Barrett – the most unique thing he does throughout is praise Amy Adams’s character for actually doing stuff that Renner doesn’t do, watching open-mouthed in total wonderment and not for one second thinking ‘wait a minute, I’m supposed to be a theoretical physicist so smart and clever I was chosen to be here’.
The other thing is, for all of Arrival‘s beautifully constructed tension, the film does feel a little bit constructed itself; a bit cold, or remote. It’s a movie that plays in more ball-pits than you might be expecting (without wishing to give too much away), and while it jumps into those ball-pits with enthusiasm and skill not often seen from a relatively big-budget movie (at $47m, all of which came from independent financing, Arrival looks an awful lot more costly than it actually was), I couldn’t help but feel like they were forcing it just a little bit. Also, there’s a couple of scenes that don’t feel right, such as a montage where Renner suddenly narrates (the only purpose his character really serves) despite the fact its clearly Louise’s story we’re following. Also, while the film is a pretty slow burn for the first two acts, the third absolutely hurtles for the conclusion – I certainly wouldn’t have minded 15 minutes, even half an hour more of Arrival that would have given the movie more impact, as well as more time to get to know Amy Adams’s character, that I’m still not quite sure I know at all. Having said that, I thought Arrival was an absolutely marvellous picture. It’s extraordinarily rare that you see movies like this in cinema these days: its a sci-fi movie that dares to go further, that really engages your mind. I can definitively say that Arrival left me with more questions and a greater curiosity to understand the themes it was wrestling with than any other movie I’ve seen for this blog, and that’s a good thing. Arrival may very well be the genre film that worms its way into the thinking of the Academy this year – it should at least do well in the technical categories, and based on his recent output Villeneuve really is owed a Best Director nomination – Arrival might even stumble into Best Picture contention as well…no I’m kidding, the Academy hates sci-fi so much it would build a wall to keep it out of their territory.
BEST WATCHED: Worth the price of admission and then some – they don’t make movies like this anymore.