Director: Denis Villeneuve (2016) BBFC cert: 12A
Prepare yourself for an epic close encounter in this cerebral sci-fi creature feature. It’s an astonishingly involving, wonderfully acted, technically dazzling and breathtakingly beautiful paean to the pain of existence.
Superb in every department, the intelligent design and gorgeous cinematography are graced by sympathetic editing which reflects the themes of the film. The storytelling of this masterful work constantly wrong foots our expectations to provide this years most profound emotional kick.
I staggered from the screening, aping exactly the stunned expressions of stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner after their first contact with alien lifeforms. I was not quite believing of the intensity or meaning of my experience, but I knew it was somehow glorious.
The arrival of an alien fleet on Earth causes global panic and the US government calls a state of emergency. Adams is tremendous as Dr. Louise Banks, a gifted linguist who is recruited by the US military and represents humanity’s best hope. Her mission is to communicate with the extra-terrestrial visitors and ascertain their purpose on our planet. She is aided by Renner’s theoretical physicist, Ian.
The lengthy first view of the monumental alien craft has a gobsmacking power. Humans are pitifully fragile before the enormous alien shell-like ship which gently hovers yards above the ground. This is merely a light jab to soften our senses before the hefty emotional punches Villeneuve lands on us later.
Inside the grey giant egg of a craft, the aliens appear through a shroud of mist,separated from their guests by an invisible wall. The giant squid-like beings have an elephantine hide, and their seven fingered form has echoes of some of the startling imagery in director Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013). They communicate through a sign language composed of inkblots, reminiscent of rorschach tests.
However time is running out as the Chinese and Russians rattle their sabres in the face of the perceived threat. Plus the anxious trigger fingers of the US military are ready with radiation suits, rifles, helicopters and high explosives.
The relatively few action moments are given power by a sharp script which touches upon our understanding of love, language, memory and time. There are elements of the Cold War stand-off and biblical allusions to the tower of Babel and Moses ascending Mount Sinai.
Along with her lead in Tom Ford’s masterful thriller Nocturnal Animals (2016), Adams has two of the plum lead roles of the year, a singular achievement for a forty-something actress in a notoriously youth-orientated Hollywood.
As her scientist sidekick, Renner demonstrates why he’s Hollywoods finest second fiddle. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg offer strong, understated support as a US Colonel and an FBI Agent.
With communication and time key ideas, Arrival appropriately conducts its own dialogue with cinema. Combining the majesty of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the humour and humanity of Spielberg’s Close Encounter Of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival is a far more successful blend of the two masters than Spielberg’s own mesmerisingly flawed A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). As well as his own films, Villeneuve includes a call back to the cult sci-fi Cold War thriller War Games (1983). This is the film Christopher Nolan can only dream of making.
The next film by Villeneuve is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner (1982), and it’s good to know it’s in the safest possible pair of hands.
But first you absolutely must see this one.