Saturday 12 November 2016

Film Review: Arrival

Arrival is the latest film from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, it's a tightly-packaged sci-fi that firmly places itself amongst the best that 2016 has to offer.

Based on Ted Chiang's short story Story of Your Life, Arrival sees Villeneuve continue to match the quality of his most recent films, notably Sicario and Enemy. It's about a college professor, Dr Louise Banks (Adams), who is drafted into a special team of military personal following the arrival of 12 monolithic alien spaceships across the planet. Her unparalleled understanding of linguistics will enable her to establish a method of communication with the extraterrestrial beings - or so Colonel Weber (Whitaker) hopes.

With physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) at her side, Banks meets with the creatures and begins to piece together their puzzling forms of communication - but time is not on their side and governments across the world, concerned about what the aliens have planned, are getting impatient. With global conflict brewing, it's up to Banks to figure out their secrets before it's too late.

Arrival is an alien invasion film unlike any other; the inclusion of aliens is a key part in the narrative, but it isn't the be all and end all of the drama. They aren't the whole story and I won't go into why that is. Think The Day The Earth Stood Still meets SignsInterstellar and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, except there are many ways in which the film blazes its own trail and does something new. There are lots of really interesting concepts at work here - it's a much more cerebral and intellectual film than something like Indepedence Day or Battle: Los Angeles.

Just know that Arrival starts in one place and ends somewhere totally different - in a really good way. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer just unfurl the film before you, adding new info in droplets until it spills over in a stirring crescendo. It's a thrillingly complex and intricate narrative that is both vast in scale and innately personal. Somehow Arrival succeeds at being a horrifying, atmospheric thriller about the complexities of first contact and an intimate and strangely romantic film about parenthood. If you think the trailers gave too much away, you couldn't be more wrong.

Central to the success of this film is Villeneuve's astute direction; now onto his fourth film in as many years, Villeneuve captures the striking scope and scale of the alien ships whilst also focusing on the intimate character moments that make this such a compelling story; Banks' shaky hands before heading into the ship or Donnelly's fingertips brushing the surface of the craft from underneath.

More than any of the film this year, Arrival smacks you with a sense of awe and size without sacrificing character. One shot that flies across the cold Montanan setting with clouds rolling across the fields would be breathtaking even if it didn't plonk a giant alien totem in the centre. Bradford Young's rich cinematography deserves a shout-out too, particularly in the scenes where Banks meets the alien creatures and their kept shrouded in smoke and mystery.

Jóhann Jóhannsson's operatic score is brilliant also; it too realises this scope by mixing blaring horns with haunting tribal chants and primal, guttural noises.

The best (which has been saved for last) is Amy Adams' terrific lead performance. Forget the aliens, this is her movie. As I said, the film is really a character study of Adams' character - without her stirring performance to bring it all together, the film would be infinitely weaker. Renner and Whitaker are great too but Adams is on another level entirely. Her character is interesting, layered and complex with plenty of depth for Adams to delve into (and in a film that isn't a sequel or a remake!).

In short, Arrival is one of the most complete sci-fi films in a long time. Thrilling, moving, complex, well-crafted and keeping plenty in reserve for a third act that evolves from the original concept into something different, it's Villeneuve's most accomplished work to date and a surprisingly uplifting film that conveys a powerful message.

The Verdict: 10/10

Arrival isn't just one of the best films this year, it's one of the best science-fiction films of the last decade. It's a life-affirming, spirited examination of the human experience that will keep you guessing and warrants repeat viewings. From editing to cinematography, visual design and score, it's an experience to savour. Adams is better than ever, the plot is brilliant and Villeneuve brings it all together with aplomb. I can't recommend it enough.

Arrival is in cinemas across Australia now

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