2016 BFI London Film Festival Review: ‘Arrival’

October 17, 2016 Updated: October 17, 2016

“Independence Day: Resurgence” aside, we’re experiencing something of a boom in science fiction cinema. There’s the matinee blockbuster fun of “Star Wars” and “Trek,” and some of our greatest modern directors are pointing their lenses toward the skies. Christopher Nolan found a fifth dimension with “Interstellar,” and now it’s “Sicario” helmer, Denis Villeneuve’s turn to deliver his tome, one set against a backdrop of unseen spectacle, with the mesmeric “Arrival.”

The set-up is familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an alien invasion movie. Huge monolithic objects of unknown origin show up in 12 locations dotted around the globe, with the US military keen to answer only one question – “What is your purpose on Earth?”. Rather than get Will Smith to punch them in the face, they turn to linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to decipher the aliens’ incomprehensible language. And so every 18 hours, when the spaceship opens its doors, along with Jeremy Renner’s scientist and Forest Whitaker’s results driven army chief, she must find a way to communicate with the visitors before China and Russia launch a hostile attack.

From the film’s devastating opening, you’re introduced to its language, its tone, and made fully aware that this will be a singular, unique take on the first contact narrative.

Also evident during the early exchanges is how well Villeneuve uses the score to provide propulsion and set the mood. Max Richter’s soul penetrating “The Nature of Daylight” establishes things in a sombre fashion, before we get a pulsating, barely audible beat as the humans enter the ship, all followed by honking great base tones when the drama is cranked up. Much like with “Sicario,” the score is as integral as anything to why “Arrival” works.

However, it’s Amy Adams’ quietly shattering turn as the woman thrust into the role as civilisation’s hope that’s the real hook. It’s stripped back, subtle, and runs the full gamut of emotions, especially during the film’s many effective flashback sequences. Wide eyed and vulnerable, she ensures that in spite of the enormity of events, this remains a very human story.

Employing a dull grey filter to the film’s aesthetics, Villeneuve still ensures there are some neat creative touches, especially in the way everything remains low-key. Like all the very best directors he holds back on things; jets roar in the distance, news reports offer up information on the landing instead of showing it, and even the beasties are only half-glimpsed through an atmospheric mist. Imagination is more powerful than anything CGI can show an audience.

There is some minimal spectacle, with the initial boarding of the vessel being a gravity defying shift in perspective straight out of the Nolan playbook, but “Arrival” remains refreshingly grounded considering the subject matter.

The resolution is unquestionably divisive, although the same could be said about almost all existential science fiction, but the course it takes only adds to the weight carried by Amy Adams’ watery eyed performance. Towards the end the film does throw a lot at you rather quickly compared to the genteel pace of what’s gone before, with some of it being acceptably silly, so an audience might find that jarring.

Superlative film-making on almost every level, “Arrival” starts as intelligent science fiction, before evolving into something altogether more beautiful and surprising.