Monday 10 October 2016

LFF 2016: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve's second film to hover menacingly over cinema audiences in the space of twelve months is light years away from the grounded, nail-troubling thrills of 2015's Sicario, just as that film was nothing like his Enemy, or Prisoners, or Incendies before it. If Villeneuve - master of the one-word title - has spent his career thus far on an eclectic jaunt through a selection of genres, then Arrival might just signify his, uh, arrival at his natural home: intelligent, thematically grand sci-fi.

Plunging us into an apparent alien invasion, pausing briefly to introduce Amy Adams' introspective linguist Louise Banks, Villeneuve dangles potential, familiar threads which may or may not have red herrings attached. The mysterious appearance of a dozen extraterrestrial crafts around the globe suggests all-out Independence Day-style war might be on the horizon, while the recruitment of experts in their field (including a maths boffin called Ian) to assist with the kind of scientific breakthrough that only happens in the movies recalls Jurassic Park with tentacles. On the flipside, Banks' melancholy - and Villeneuve's deliberate, measured pacing - evokes Tarkovsky's Solaris. But Arrival is none of these things; sitting somewhere between arthouse and popcorn, it's refreshingly and joyously original, though it takes its sweet time explaining how.
"I speak aylien very wail, I lairn eet from ay boook"

Banks - one of the world's foremost experts in language - is tasked with establishing communication with the visitors, and it's not a quick or easy process. Her methods are complex and hampered by only sporadic contact with her subject, and her apparent lack of progress leads to nervousness around the world, especially high up in the Chinese and Russian military (it feels a little uncomfortable that Eric Heisserer's otherwise classy script has to fall back on racial stereotyping here, especially in a story about trying to understand a foreign culture, but the payoff warrants it). In all honesty, the pace may also incite restlessness in audience buttocks: as beautiful as Arrival's visuals are, and as terrifically weird as it sounds (it's often impossible to tell where Jóhann Jóhannsson's score ends and the sound effects begin), after ninety minutes you might find yourself itching to be amazed, rather than merely impressed. But then the last act drops, the rug you've been comfortably standing on is whipped away, and all is forgiven.

Arrival has so much to recommend it - Adams is restrained yet captivating; her character's story is as vital as the global crisis at the centre of which she finds herself; aliens are well cool - but its USP is the kind of narrative chicanery that blows away even the most deep-rooted cynicism of audiences who think they can't be surprised any more. It's reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's faux-Kubrickian efforts in Inception and Interstellar, but benefits from not being as wildly overambitious or unnecessarily complex. More than that, though, Villeneuve and Heisserer take a century of established cinematic storytelling and use it against you to create something so ballsy, it's almost as if you've been introduced to an entirely new language. Look very carefully and you can see what they've done there.
Probably worth mentioning that Jeremy Renner's in it too

A second viewing should be included with the sale of each cinema ticket, so that all of Arrival's sly genius can be appreciated in full. With hindsight, seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue take on new meaning, scenes that initially seemed irrelevant become crucial, and those red herrings can be fished out at an early stage. What's more, you can wallow in the respect afforded to you by a director who assumes you're smart enough to work with him in decoding the film's mysteries while simultaneously schooling you in linguistic theory and cinematic audacity.

Were it not for that somewhat protracted mid-section, Arrival would easily perch atop any sensible cinemagoer's (i.e. mine) top ten of the year so far. It's rescued by its dazzling finale, but there's still plenty to love about its freshness, its elegance and its refusal to cram in a car chase or ten. Almost certainly Denis Villeneuve's best film, the success of this sci-fi lullaby bodes extremely well for his next film: 2017's tantalising Harrison Ford / Ryan Gosling-starring Blade Runner sequel. Here's hoping to see more things you people wouldn't believe.


  1. Damn, I CAN-NOT-WAIT any longer for that film! And your review is not helping.