Film review: Arrival

Jordan Phillips
Jordan Phillips

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Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is an auspicious feat of science fiction filmmaking. Based on the short ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a masterclass in mystery, tension, and suspense. Villeneuve’s adaptation constructs a powerfully human message veiled within the expected – yet unjaded – mise-en-scene of sci-fi blockbusters. Although extra-terrestrial lifeforms are undoubtedly the main narrative driver of Arrival, it is the human characters who anchor the film’s thematic and emotional heft. Make no mistake, Arrival involves aliens, but is not about aliens. This is a very human story which makes use of its imaginative sci-fi premise, but suffuses it with a character-driven plot which so many sci-fi films abandon in favour of mindless, cacophonic action pieces. Above all else, this film is about hope – a hope for a better world, one which sees its inhabitants working together instead of against each another. Given the state of geopolitical relations within the last few decades, this message could not be more relevant.

When twelve mysterious spacecrafts touch down across all corners of the globe, an elite team – led by expert linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a military theoretical physicist – is brought together to investigate the extra-terrestrial presence. Banks and Donnelly are tasked with decrypting the alien’s (dubbed ‘Heptapods’ due to their seven limbs) non-verbal language, which consists of a complicated lexicon of circular symbols. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and Donnelly race against time for answers. Louise becomes increasingly proficient in the Heptapod language and is able to ask the aliens (affectionately nicknamed ‘Abbott and Costello’) their intentions with Earth. They answer: ‘Offer weapon’, which creates a widespread hysteria across the twelve crash sites, all of which deduct similar translations e.g., ‘use weapon’. As the nations become increasingly more paranoid of attack, they close communications with one another. Louise, however, still believes the visitors to be benign, suggesting that the message may have been obscured in translation, offering an alternate translation of ‘tool’ instead of ‘weapon’. Louise and Donnelly desperately try to figure out the true meaning of the Heptapod’s message, before humanity plunges into chaos.

Arrival is a versatile and refreshing take on an overdone genre of films, while still retaining enough of the ‘sameness’ we all know and love from the sci-fi canon. The most refreshing element is the cast, lead by a female who is not a scientist (and unlike Armageddon, this is believable casting). Adams’ performance is mesmerising and affective, channelling the thematic and emotional depth of the film through her performance as Dr. Banks. Renner is also laudable for his portrayal of Donnelly, a charmingly demure character – a far cry from his signature role as super-spy Hawkeye from the Marvel universe. By substituting the destruction of cultural landmarks, exploding countries, and trite alien invasion narrative for a more intimate, character-driven story, Arrival positions itself as a cerebral and poignant sci-fi film for genre fans and the non-initiated. Although the film does highlight the capriciousness of human nature, the idea of hope shines through incandescently, reminding us all to have faith in our fellow humans in the darkest of times.