Denis Villeneuve’s realistic, humanised sci-fi blockbuster that polarised audiences with its slow paced, alternative take on what sci-fi should be in 2016.
Arrival is a film that on reflection poses more questions than answers with its charmingly disjointed narrative and interesting take on the sci-fi genre. It is a film that would be almost impossible to do justice with a spoiler-free review, so if you haven’t seen it – go and do that now before reading on.
The film follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her new found research partner, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), as they are tasked by the US Military with deciphering the language of an alien race who have arrived on earth in twelve different locations – Hectapods.
The most striking component of Villeneuve’s fourth English language feature film is its very realistic take on an alien invasion of Earth. In a year where the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises are revitalised with new additions, Arrival is a welcomed break from the sci-fi action genre more accurately reflects on how a peaceful alien invasion may plan out.
The twelve locations, in twelve differently governed territories have wholly different techniques for dealing with the aliens, ranging from the Chinese militaristic take, the American academic tactic, and the Russians isolationistic dealings – which is a more realistic reflection on how world superpowers may deal with an invasion. It is not plane sailing even in the American ranks. Eric Heisserer’s geo-political narrative is as interesting as the films main plot and becomes far more relevant as we reach the climax of the film.
Arrival is beautifully directed and cinematographed. The Montana landscape is beautiful and its shots are well thought out and deliberate. Each shot really plays on audience emotions, Adams’ performance emanates emotion and echos her sense of confusion about what is happening to her, and the world. The shot selection comes into its own during contact scenes between the humans and the Hectapods, with its grey, dark backgrounds and blinding white light in its foreground it looks beautiful on the screen. Villeneuve’s direction and Bradley Young’s cinematography are outstanding and create an intimate feel to the film which matches its slow pace and unravelling narrative.
The main complaint that the film garners is its limited use of Renner’s character. While he becomes almost crucial as the plot plays out, more character building would have cemented him as a more necessary character rather than playing this out in the final act. It is clear that Banks, the linguist, is the central character and the film wants the audience to focus solely on her but this does mean that it can leave a lot to be desired in understanding character motivations and feeling emotion outside of Banks’ journey.
Eventually the methodical plot crescendos into a clever twist revealing the non-linear structure of the film in which its perceived flash-backs were in fact flash-forwards. This is the point where the narrative raises a series of questions, for me anyway, that revealed it to be a far clever film on reflection than I realised at the time.
Bank’s ability to jump through her own timeline came from unlocking the alien language. They see time in the way we see space – open. Humans are a prisoner of time, the fourth dimension, but are not prisoners of the first three dimensions (width, height, and depth). The fifth dimension therefore, the ability to move through time, is about time being malleable and timelines being laid out in a way that they can be floated in and out of. An example of this is when in her flash-forward her daughter asks her for a phrase that she cannot remember until in the present Donnelly speaks of non-zero-sum games – reminding her of the phrase and then helping her daughter in a later part of her timeline.
The first major question the film poses is whether there is in fact free will? Is her timeline pre-determined or is she able to alter it by her actions in the present. Is it a timeline at all or is it more of a time path that could have a series of other avenues to take and that through choices made in one period of time, other paths then become unlocked.
Secondly it begs the question, are you able to move back within a timeline? The alien Banks speaks to when she is alone towards the end of the film discloses their motivation for the invasion, needing the help of humans in three thousand years. This of course could man that they have seen the future of their timeline and are figuring out how they can change it for the better, but is it possible that the aliens have come back from later in the timeline to find a way of altering what will come?
The science fiction masterpiece of 2016 is well worth a watch, while it is not for everyone it is clear that it will be causing ripples in the genre for years to come.