I must confess, prior to sitting down on Saturday evening to watch this extraordinary sci-fi thriller, the list of films starring Amy Adams I’d seen had been limited to ‘The Muppets’ (thrill a minute) and ‘Enchanted’ (seemingly more enjoyable for adults able to spot its satirical elements than as effective entertainment for the pre-teen I was at the time). This is a rather different film to those two, and a fair few steps up in quality to boot.
This year’s ‘Oscars’ build-up has been fair dominated by discussion of whether runaway audience and critical favourite ‘La La Land’ will triumph in most or all of its 13 eligible categories, or whether the current poliitcal and economic situation in the wider world will tempt The Academy to plump for Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’, in reflection of its harder-hitting (and less ethnically-awkward) nature. But this debate overlooks the limitations of ‘Moonlight’ as a film. If you can overlook the fact ‘Arrival’ falls back into the trap of giving both of its lead roles to white people, Denis Villeneuve’s venture into the sci-fi genre manages to combine a thrillingly relevant political subtext with supreme filmic qualities in the more traditional sense.
Set primarily in Montana, Adams plays a university-lecturing linguist, Louise Banks, suddenly tasked with saving the world through finding out from some shy aliens why they’ve suddenly plonked their easter egg-resembling spaceships at 12 seperate and apparently random locations across the globe. Pretty standard sci-fi fare, then, in its most basic premise. Which is fine, and if one were to go and see this flick looking for two hours of easy sci-fi entertainment on a Saturday night date night, it would work on that level. But, as the two-hour epic unravells, it becomes increasingly clear that the film has the most important message of any Oscar candidate this year – or, indeed, two or three such messages. It is one of those magical films which can be interpreted and interpreted again from multiple different angles, a gold mine for A-Level English and film students for years to come.
The basic premise of the film directly and blatantly poses questions of the world turning in on itself – each major power focussing so much on the threat to its own territory and people that internationalist communication and shared problem-solving is being increasingly put on the metaphorical back-burner, as sheer panic and irrationality surges through both citizens and governments alike. The growing global “what we gonna ’bout those weird alien egg things huh brother” panic is less prominently presented than would typically be the case in a sci-fi romp, and this in turn perhaps prevents one part of the climax to the film from having quite as mindblowing an impact as it could have had, but this may well have been a deliberate decision to allow the other messages of the film the space to breathe, and if so is very wise. The very purpose of the aliens’ visit, we eventually learn, is to teach the world’s major powers a lesson about the dangers of becoming more self-focussed and less interactive with each other, and this focus feeds effectively into the even more important angle of ‘how the world reacts to foreign intruders’. As the world races to overreact into doing anything and everything within its power to make these mysterious aliens go back to wherever they came from, with little patience and even less compassion shown in trying to understand why they’re here or why they might have wanted to escape their homeland, it would require an audience member to be quite disengaged from reality in order to not spot the metaphorical symbolism for the so-called ‘migrant crisis’. There are even nods to how the era of terrorism has affected the mindsets of those with power in authority – at one point it is “assumed”, despite no evidence backing it up, that the aliens will retaliate with anger to a rogue US soldier’s attempt to blow them up – and also to how little consideration is given to the environmental impact when major powers are rushing to address supposed crises: there are countless beautiful visuals provided by cinematographer Bradford Young and his team, but these landscapes are often later blighted, as ugly military teams camp out ‘trying to work out what to do’. Even if ‘Arrival’ is overlooked for the main Oscar categories, it at least deserves recognition for its technical qualities.
On a less political level, however, ‘Arrival’ also works incredibly well as a heartbreaking exploration of family, relationships, and the decisions the heart makes. The film opens with a birth-to-death montage reminiscent of that opening sequence from ‘Up’, where we find out that Dr. Banks’ daughter tragically passed away as a teenager through cancer, only to conclude with the revelation that Banks knew that such tragedy would befall her spawn prior to conceiving her, but made the agonising choice to do so anyway. It leaves us as an audience questioning what we’d do in the same situation, and indeed the film specifically acknowledges this, with the poignant question of “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” being posed by Dr. Banks as one of the last lines of dialogue in the film. Villeneuve takes the age old wish for life to have a ‘rewind’ button to press, to go back and make different decisions with the benefit of hindsight, and emphastically ensures that the audience realises that in reality such a button mightn’t be so helpful. In addition, just in case all of this wasn’t enough of an emotional rollercoaster, the very end of the film reveals that Jeremy Renner’s wondefully human albeit slightly cliche scientist Ian Donnelly, who we spend most of the film seemingly engaging in a ‘will they won’t they’ romance with Banks, is in fact the absent father who causes Banks so much anguish and difficulty in the flashbacks of what is actually the life she has yet to lead. If it sounds confusing explained in a 200-word paragraph, that it makes perfect sense on screen is a credit to both Villeneuve, and – in particular – to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, whose translation of a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’, is masterful in its controlled unravelling.
This is not a perfect film. The pacing is questionable – more than half of the film’s running time has elapsed before the plot really starts ticking along, and this later means the ending sequence feels slightly rushed. Furthermore, how Dr Banks and her team manage to get a handle on the unusual language of the aliens, to the point where they are able to not only able to understand said language but respond back in it using an iPad, is never properly explained. But these hiccups do not detract enough from the film’s remarkable cinematography, adaptation, message, score, editing and acting to prevent it from being – by a distance – the most memorable of this year’s Oscar frontrunners.