Arrival – Film Review by Gareth Stack
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the short story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Nobody makes science fiction movies anymore. What?! I hear you say. Aren’t they the only movies these days? And sure, if you walk into a random screen in a multiplex anywhere on the planet, chances are there’ll be a franchise superhero movie playing. Star Wars has recently seen a reboot, arguably besting the original. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner is due to receive a sequel next year. JJ Abrams Star Trek ‘re-imaginings’ are popular and indeed fun. But this revival of interest in the fantastical is deceptive. While Marvel and DC movies, and even the techno futuristic work of Christopher Nolan may play with the tropes of science fiction, they are emphatically not SF. For a film or novel to earn that distinction it has to take its ideas seriously. There are numerous varieties of science fiction – but they all share this central aspect – they examine the repercussions of an idea. By this definition films like say ‘Eternal Sunshine…’ or ‘Never Let Me Go’ are science fiction, despite featuring no robots, space ships or little green men. While a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t, despite being choc full of all of the above. There’s some great SF on the small screen right now, from Black Mirror to Westworld, but few real science fiction flicks get released. Such films are often expensive and rarely popular. Even masterpieces like Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and 2001 took years to build an audience. When done well, SF is as Arthur C.Clark once wrote, “the only genuinely consciousness expanding drug”. This is a double edged sword, as audiences hungry for striking images and intoxicating emotions can be allergic to novel ideas. While recent films like Primer, Moon, and District 9 have garnered critical acclaim – it’s broader fair that finds an audience: Whether it be Christopher Nolan’s incoherent space opera Interstellar, blockbuster pop like the Planet of the Apes do-over, or Danny Boyle’s beautiful gobbledygook Sunshine. It’s all too easy for science fiction to be clunky and head heavy (‘Upstream Colour’), or pretentious & tonally disjointed (‘Snowpiercer’). For every brilliant insight into a probable future like Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Children of Men’, there are a hundred ‘Another Earth’s.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Arrival really is a science fiction film, and a pretty good one. Denis Villeneuve’s film is a love letter to Christopher Nolan that manages something the man himself never quite pulled off. Inception & Interstellar attempted to get audiences drunk enough on fee-fees to swallow a BIG IDEA. Both share a formula that ties their protagonist’s emotional development into grand events, forcing them to grow beyond self interest to save their loved ones. Both suffer from meandering plots, and a reliance on contrived deus ex machina that may as well be magic. Arrival turns this formula on its head, this is a meditation on determinism that deftly manipulates its audience. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a dour linguist who appears to have undergone a personal tragedy. Banks is so jaded even the arrival of a flotilla of city-sized spicy wedges can’t alter her expression. But when she’s called in to accompany Professor Scienceman (Jeremy Renner) attempting to communicate with the ships unsettling inhabitants, she finds herself coming alive.
Arrival is far from perfect – the otherwise affecting opening scenes are mangled by an unnecessary voice over. The implied conflict between science & war and empathy & the humanities is naive at best. The characterizations are wafer thin. Bank’s credibility as a world-leading linguist isn’t remotely established. Her passivity – although central to the plot – feels leaden. It’s a nitpick, but Forrest Whitaker’s wandering accent rivals Shia LaBeouf’s in Nymphomaniac. More significantly, there’s some truly ham fisted writing at work, both in terms of dialogue and narrative, neither of which hold up to post cinema pub grumbling.
But, as Barry Norman used to say, there’s lots to enjoy here. Bradford Young’s cinematography is full of references to genre classics from Donnie Darko to The Abyss, including a particularly deft reversal of the monolith scene from 2001. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is reminiscent of Micachu’s brilliant soundtrack to Johnathon Glazer’s underrated Under The Skin. Our first sight of the alien ships, shot from afar as clouds pour over a mountain range, is genuinely breathtaking. The film’s ending lends a genuine emotional weight. It’s a resolution that feels earned, tying together themes of loss and misunderstanding that seem apposite not just to the story, but to our current moment. This is clever, heartfelt popcorn, and on those terms a success.