#LFF2016 Slow-Burning And Contemplative, ‘Arrival’ Is A Film of Hope
Arrival is one of those quiet, thought-provoking science fiction movies which expresses hope for humanity, despite our sometimes overpowering human paranoia and fear in the face of something we don’t understand. Like aliens and illness! It also asks a rather abstract question about the choices one makes around love and family.
The opening sequence is of a life. Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of languages and new mother to a delightful baby girl, Hannah (Abigail Pniowsky). We see them interact; a family of two, as the child grows into her teenage years. Then, tragedy strikes. Post incident Banks goes to work to find the entire university congregated around the many TV screens on campus. Twelve coffee bean-shaped objects, dubbed “shells” have appeared across the globe and sit on their short curves silently waiting, emitting no signal or radiation.
Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber appears at Banks’ workplace and plays her a short recording and asks if she can translate it. Within hours the Colonel returns by helicopter to take her to the base camp at the nearest ‘alien’ shell in Montana. Also being transported to the site is Jeremy Renner’s Dr. Ian Donnelly, a noted physicist. Together, they are the civilian members of an exploratory incursion team tasked with asking three simple questions: what do they want; where are they from; how did they get here?
All 12 shell base camps establish the sharing of information. Banks sees a way to communicate without a common language or alphabet. Working closely with her, Donnelly, has a language breakthrough of his own, which becomes significant later on. Banks has been plagued by what seem to be flashbacks which help with her work. Once she is in a race against the clock, they become more frequent and meaningful, and their true nature is revealed as she realises she must take matters into her own hands to see the job through. The methods that other nations use, significantly influence the deductions they make, which leads one superpower down a darker path, which proves contagious, ramping up the fear and paranoia of all of the others, and placing Banks and Donnelly in a race to prove their theory before disaster ensues. Do these beings pose a threat or a boon to mankind?
Since 2005, Adams has been hailed as an Oscar-worthy actress, with 5 nominations in 05, 08, 10, 12 and 13. At times, her performance here completely justifies that confidence. When she first realises she has just heard the voice of an alien being, she does something quite remarkable, yet incredibly subtle, with her expression that conveys so much. She plays Banks with a delicate vulnerability, showing her considerable inner strength in the knowledge that she knows her stuff. Renner, heretofore seen as an action hero, plays down the machismo and is convincing as an enthusiastic academic. Although in this instance, his physicist is somewhat overshadowed by Banks’ linguist, you’d be happy to have him on your side. Writer Eric Heisserer gave him some of the best exclamations known to the English language. Director Denis Villeneuve coaxes a tenderness from him you may not have seen before, making him unexpectedly plausible as a romantic lead.
Paradoxically, it was great to see Mr. Whitaker forego his usual sensitive role to give us a tough, but reasonable soldier. He initially runs interference with the US military and government to allow Banks, a professional, but just a girl after all, some wiggle room to test her productive theories. More screen time would have suited me, but this story was all about Banks and Donnelly, and that’s OK. That said, there is no denying Whitaker’s screen presence. As for the film, I liked it. It’s a slow burner to be sure, but its positivity and lightness of touch will leave you feeling that you might just have witnessed some breakthrough for mankind and the very human act of love.
Heisserer and Villeneuve’s use of the slightly mind-bending angle will frustrate you a little, but, again in the greater scheme of things, it works. Just. It was reminiscent of The Abyss (1989) and Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977) in handling the wonder of first hand close contact, without the darkness. It was also lovely to see a high-ish spec $50m sci fi film set in rural Montana (though filmed in Quebec, Canada!), acknowledging not only that there are other states in America besides New York and California, but also the global nature of a first contact scenario.
Arrival has a November 11th 2016 UK release date.