Film Review: Arrival (Director Denis Villeneuve)

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I love Science Fiction and when I say Sci-Fi I do not mean space operas or fantasy, I mean speculative Sci-Fi – stories about ideas, technology and grand narratives that explore the potential of the future as well as the mysteries of existence. I am also partial to uplifting narratives that fill me with hope and confirm my faith in the best of humanity.

Books and TV adequately fulfil my need for these kinds of stories but films not so much. Mostly I have been disappointed by big screen sci-fi which tends toward the fantastical and bombastic but I never give up trying because every now and again a filmmaker nails it and the result is deeply affirming.

My favourite Sci-Fi films are in rough order:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968)

Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner 1968)

A.I – Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg 2001)

Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky 1979)

Star Trek – First Contact (Jonathan Frakes 1996)

Cloud Atlas ( The Wachowskis/Tom Tykwer 2012)

Things To Come (William Cameron Menzies 1936)

These films have inspired, educated, impressed and left me a little better for the experience and as I approached the cinema I wondered if ‘Arrival’ would fulfil the promise of its trailer, which hinted at a carefully drawn ideas driven narrative with an Auteur’s touch.

The first thing I want to say is how fine an actress Amy Adams is. She won my admiration with her measured and deeply nuanced performance in P.T Anderson’s beautiful and perceptive 2012 film ‘The Master’ and continues on with this vein in ‘Arrival’ playing a language expert trying to communicate with abstruse Alien visitors.

As for those Alien visitors, not since Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ has an off planet intelligence been so profoundly realised. Thrown aside are all the standard ‘life from other planet’ clichés along with vast space travelling vessels and all the usual nefarious motives. Here it is all profoundly re-imagined and the result is mind bending and perfectly in touch with the cutting edge of speculative science. This species did not come all this way for conquest (as they mostly do) they came for dialogue but first we have to deal with the shock, fear and anxiety which is understandable in light of initial communication difficulties and potential for misunderstanding.

‘Arrival’ – especially in light of its heroic female protagonist – parallels ‘Contact’ the Carl Sagan written and Robert Zemeckis directed 1997 film. There are attempts to destroy the aliens, rising social tensions and chaotic anarchy as frightened people demand answers in the face of paradigm changing mystery. The parallels between the films do not end here with time twisting scenarios and a  journey of personal discovery to the fore. As for the visitors vessel and the overarching air of mystery, the director Denis Villeneuve gives a very big nod to the greatest of all Sci-Fi films, Kubrick’s ‘2001’.

Otherwise ‘Arrival’ is a powerful film especially with its boldly imaginative examination of how intelligent life may have evolved on planets unlike earth while investigating humanities own worst xenophobic tendencies, an interesting theme in light of Donal Trumps recent ascendency to the American throne. Inventive direction, a beautifully rendered screenplay, creative cinematography and fine performances overcome the only flaw, the somewhat ordinary score.

Due to the contained and dreamy nature of the visuals I felt a little more silence and subtlety might have served things better. That said, my companion felt quite the opposite and also revelled in the closing scene which felt a bit like overcooked art-house to me. I will need to see it again, but judging by the amount of time I spent squirming in my seat with emotions set alight, I have a sneaking suspicion that this might  be one of the great sci-fi movies. Time will be the judge of that, regardless, it is what the big screen version of the genre sorely needs more of – inspiring and provocative narratives dedicated to the cause of the human spirit.

 

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2 Responses to “Film Review: Arrival (Director Denis Villeneuve)”

  1. Dan O. Says:

    It’s a movie that I probably admire, than I actually enjoyed. Still, there’s something to watch here. Nice review.

  2. CineMuseFilms Says:

    It is certainly a thought-provoking film and I agree with you about Amy Adams; whatever role she plays, she seems to fill it so well.

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