Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Release: Out now
Essential Plot Points:
- University professor and linguist Louise Bank’s world is shaken when her daughter dies of cancer and her husband leaves her. She’s left without a sense of purpose – until the day the aliens arrive.
- For the most part Louise is unaffected by the arrival – until Colonel Weber, with whom she has worked previously, comes to ask for her help in interpreting the aliens’ language. The military and the government need to know whether the aliens are hostile, and the only way they can find that out is through communication.
- Louise agrees, and is thrown into the heart of the alien arrival, along with physicist Ian Donnelly. They’re taken up to meet the aliens for the first time. Gradually, Louise begins to work with them to communicate, and finds out that they’re here to “offer weapon”.
- The mere talk of a weapon sends the world’s forces into meltdown, with China preparing to declare war on the aliens. Louise has to work quickly if she wants to prevent all out warfare..
When is an alien invasion film not an alien invasion film?
It’s a genre that’s been brought to the silver screen time and time again – from the full-out warfare and destruction of the Independence Days of the film world to the “literal illegal alien” stories like District 9 – but it’s never been done quite like this before. Based on the short novel Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival provides a much more human, introspective take on a world-rocking event, which in this case is twelve floating pods landing across the globe for reasons unknown. It strips away what’s often portrayed as hyper-fantastical and destructive to tell a much quieter, personal story.
Arrival pivots around the character of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a talented linguist/professor who’s trying to keep herself going while constantly feeling the loss of her husband and her daughter, Hannah. It’s likely a major reason as to why Louise’s view of the world seems muted, dialled down; her reaction to the news of the titular “arrival” is very calm and composed compared to her panicking students and co-workers, for example. Not to mention, as a woman with nothing left to lose, Louise simply buckles down and gets to work when faced with this new challenge; or in some cases, walks up to the alien lifeforms – the tree-esque, looming “Heptapods” – and places her hand straight onto the barrier between them, because how else are you going to get results?
The results in question are figuring out just how to talk with the aliens to figure out their purpose on Earth, putting communication at the absolute core of Arrival’s plotline. It’s the path to either co-operation or warfare, and for the Americans, it’s Louise who bears the weight of knowing her actions may decide the fates of many. Not only that, but by agreeing to interpret the Heptapod’s language, she’s agreeing to alter the course of her entire life – in more ways than one. It all comes down to the Sapir Wharf hypothesis, which is likely a foreign concept to most people! Simply put, it hypothesises the idea that learning a new language has the potential to rewire the way the brain works. Arrival takes that concept and applies it to learning an alien language, with some truly mind-blowing results.
With communication and language being so key to the plot, Arrival has an unfortunate shortfall. Whilst Louise manages to interpret the alien language with great success, the actual learning how is very much glossed over, hidden inside a montage. The carefully crafted alien language is almost a character in its own right, its coffee mug stain design hiding intricate sentence patterns and structures unlike anything human, and there are likely many viewers who would like to see more of it being unlocked from a human perspective. Instead, Louise goes from being able to identify a single word to being able to interpret entire sentences within a montage. It would absolutely be worth the extra ten minute or so addition to the running time to expand and explain the methodology some more.
Linguistics aside, though, Louise isn’t the only one tasked with trying to understand the aliens. Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) believes that the key to understanding the Heptapods lies in science and mathematics, and isn’t too enthused about using linguistics. Still, he warms up to Louise quickly through their combined experiences with the Heptapods, and they become a firm team, working together and using both their strengths to ultimately come up with the results they need. He’s certainly a welcome figure to Louise, providing her warmth, humanity and comic relief that the military task force surrounding them just can’t offer. Like most things in Arrival, it’s a quiet, understated relationship the two share, but it’s clear that just under the surface there’s the threat that without the other they might slip into insanity.
Nobody (except, unfortunately for them, the military) would blame them – even on the screen the sight of the gigantic oval pods hovering above the ground is daunting. There’s a definite sense of scale in the way the film’s shot and framed, showing how insignificant a mere human is up against it. Of course, we and the characters in the film have no clue as to whether the pods are hostile or not, causing mass panic and confusion across the globe – even threats of warfare. But that’s all firmly pushed to background noise here, ignoring the panic and tension in exchange for staying right at the heart of it all, where everything is quiet as everyone is driven to get results as quickly as they possibly can, or risk war.
Arrival is a new breed of alien invasion film. It doesn’t bother with panic or destruction, leaving those factors as background noise; humanity dealing from behind a television screen. It instead tells the very personal stories of those brought in to deal with the aliens face to face, and how it affects the very core of their lives. It’s a film that’s very human whilst dealing with something otherworldly, and leaves its audience asking themselves a very poignant “What would I do?’ question as the credits roll.
- Louise is a great character with a brilliant mind, perfectly put to use against the challenge of an entirely new language. Amy Adams does a wonderful job portraying her.
- Ian is a much-needed charismatic humour-provider in amongst all the introspection and uncertainty.
- The Heptapod’s language is one of the highlights of the film, particularly in the way they visually form it.
- The visuals are gorgeous, from the alien pods to the Heptapods themselves. It’s not a great deal of CGI, but what there is certainly has an impact.
- It’s a nice change from what are normally fast-paced, destruction-laden alien films to have something so thoughtful and insular.
- The plot unfurls masterfully, leaving audiences left with a lot to think about by the end of the film.
- The film glosses over how Louise actually managed to learn the Heptapod’s language; given that it’s one of the main plot points of the film, it would have been good to have more focus here.
- Ian’s character could have done with a lot more fleshing out than he gets.
- The soundtrack is often one ominous note repeated ad nauseum. It sets the tone, sure, but it gets old fast, and could do with more variety.
And The Random:
- The interior of the Heptapod’s ship is a built set rather than just a green screen, which allowed for a lot more freedom for Adams and Renner when acting within it.
- Adams was director Denis Villenueve’s first choice to play Louise. At the time, Adams was taking an acting break, but couldn’t help but take the job as she liked the script so much.
- Jeremy Renner plays a very down-to-earth, scientifically minded character in Arrival – very different to his recent roles as, for example, Jason Bourne or Hawkeye!
- Producer Dan Levine and executive producer Dan Cohen work for 21 Laps, who produced the major hit TV series of 2016, Stranger Things.
Review by Jessica Anson