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Review: Arrival – “What science fiction should be”


First contact with extra-terrestrial life is a theme that has permeated cinema since its inception. Recently, filmmakers have tended to forgo the more cerebral elements of such an encounter, giving us contact to beings with violent actions and clear intentions. But how could humanity even begin to comprehend any such communication, so alien as to not be within the realm of earthly context? How could we ever begin to decipher it, let alone uncover their motives? Denis Villeneuve’s latest film is a captivating and visually stunning exploration of this very question. Arrival is an intelligent yet emotional film and a refreshing shift from conventional science fiction.

Adapted from Ted Chaing’s novel Story of Your Life, Arrival begins as numerous alien craft descend to earth. As these disc-like spacecraft (think of them as a gigantic metal Pringles) loom over landscapes, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and the US government begin to assemble a team of experts to understand why. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is thrown together with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in an attempt to explain this phenomenon and decipher a mysterious visual language.

Despite its intergalactic scale, Arrival is a human story with Louise at the emotional core. When we first discover the alien presence in a news broadcast, the cameras gaze never flinches from her face and her reaction. Here Villeneuve doesn’t just subvert a genre cliché but signals the narrative is anchored to her, despite the more spectacular elements. Amy Adams’ performance stands out even with this extra focus as she switches between the moments of fear and awe to the more poignant.

Later, as the scientists prepare to come face to face with the aliens the film manages to encapsulate that sense of foreboding towards the unknown. The pacing, visuals and especially the music (scored by regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson) all build to an intense and spectacular first contact scene, as the scientists ascend into the craft. Walking its black corridors (reminiscent to me of the Monolith in 2001) they are met by two squid like beings glimpsed through smoke as they ‘draw’ ink like symbols in the air. The effect is a real sense of disturbing otherworldliness.

Science fiction is at its best when it reflects our own society back at us and Arrival is no different, it’s an exploration of humanity and the inherent ability to reach conclusions of conflict. Initially in the face of alien threat, nations forge together for the common good, sharing intelligence and communications to help uncover the extra-terrestrial’s motives. But as time ticks away, tensions begin to rise. Louise and Ian implore that their progress implies the aliens are not violent, but communication between them all is cut. With nations not talking some start to take a more aggressive approach, preparing their militaries to attack (This doesn’t make Arrival an action film, the pacing reflects the more thought provoking approach)

The visuals are spectacular, cinematographer Bradford Young (who incidentally is now off to work on the new Star Wars Han Solo film) is versatile enough to flip between an intimate scene of mother and daughter at home, to representing the immense size and scale of a gigantic disc as it hovers over a mountain range. The scenes slowly revealing the aliens mean you never quite get a clear image of their form. These unimaginable creatures always have an intriguing mystery about them. There are nods to Kubrick and Spielberg all present, but the film always feels distinct and different.

Villeneuve masterfully presents Arrival in parallel to its key mystery. The film is puzzle which, to some extent, you have to deconstruct order to decipher it. It’s an experience where the language of film is just as important as the language of the aliens. As the mystery slowly unravels and the elements of discovery fall into place, it brings about a satisfying ending. But this isn’t a limited representation of translation, it’s more than that. This puzzles connotations have effects on the main character and wider philosophical consequences. The film is also a multi layered comment on the importance of open communication and understanding.

Arrival is not your conventional alien invasion movie; it’s much more than that. It’s simply captivating. Cerebral and emotional, this is what science fiction should be.


Arrival is in UK cinemas today, 10th November 2016, and opens in the US on 11th November.

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