Running time 1hr 56mins
ARRIVAL is Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction precursor to Bladerunner 2049, which hits cinemas next year. It’s the French-Canadian director’s first attempt at tackling sci-fi and it gives us some idea of what’s to come from the feverishly-anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cinema classic. So what can we expect? A film loaded with symbolism,
that’s also more sophisticated and thoughtful than your standard sci-fi spectacle – all characteristics, of course, of Scott’s original Blade Runner film, which was based on the Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
Arrival is also based on a novel, albeit a short one (Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life); another commonality is darkness. Villeneuve’s adaptation is almost entirely shrouded in shadow; its main protagonist, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), along with the rest of the cast and action, are constantly seen in the half-light. This reflects the fact that the audience is metaphorically in the dark – the mystery of what’s happening and why aliens have arrived on Earth is only gradually revealed as Dr Banks attempts to decipher the visitors’ complex language. She’s a linguistics professor, called on by the US authorities to help communicate with alien life forms who have visited Earth in monolithic space ships.
The story centres on Montana, but there are another 11 ovoid crafts just like this stationed around the world – in China, the UK, Venezuela, Russia and beyond. Paired up with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), together Louise and Ian face a race against time before war is declared and the situation turns hostile.
Villeneuve’s treatment of the source material sets us up for a Close Encounters-style cerebral drama. Through the techniques he employs – unbearable tension ratcheted up by an oppressive music score, a sense of foreboding, impending peril and heavy symbolism, along with a leaden atmosphere and at times intolerably slow pace – the director asks you to invest so much. He raises our expectations, and ultimately the investment doesn’t pay off. By the end, you feel cheated. The film offers tantalising snippets of stories beyond the one it’s decided to tell that are more intriguing and more gripping and yet it never explores them. It feels almost like a prequel to a franchise that already exists but which, crushingly, won’t ever exist.
At heart, despite it aspiring to be a thinking person’s blockbuster, it exists as an allegory; a morality tale pushing a simplistic but hopeful and pertinent message that war is bad, and we should all get along and work together, alongside a concurrent message that we should all live in the present. Arrival wants us to enjoy the experience of living without focusing on where we’re going or where we’ve been. It’s something we know, but Arrival really wants us to slow down and take stock, using creatures from another planet as a vessel for its teachings.