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Film review: 'Arrival', the latest uplifting sci-fi effort from director Denis Villeneuve


Arrival, the newest offering from brilliant and prolific director Denis Villeneuve, is based on an odd, magical-reality science fiction short story, The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang, one in which language is used as both a hub for the storyline and a multi-purpose metaphor. The script, by Chiang and Hollywood horror screenwriter Eric Heisserer, expands that modest piece of fiction into a full-blown alien invasion drama, which manages to retain some of Chiang’s contemplative tone.

The story centres on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics. When a series of twelve alien ships land at random spots around the globe, Banks is unexpectedly recruited by the U.S. military to try and decipher the aliens’ language. She, along with experts in various fields of science, are taken to a remote area in Montana, where they prepare to meet the interplanetary visitors.

At this point, the story becomes more visual than verbal, and is taken up by the impressive production design from the accomplished and versatile Patrice Vermette (Sicario, The Young Victoria). From the mysterious pod-like space ships, to the adjustable gravity chamber meant to accommodate human emissaries, to the hazy images of the aliens themselves, the look of the film provides a striking, slightly eerie impression of a first encounter with utterly foreign beings. However, Arrival wisely avoids overdoing the special effects, which could easily have overwhelmed the actual story.
The military’s main concern is the aliens’ intentions: do they come in peace, or is their arrival a hostile act? Banks’ expertise is vital, but she warns against making assumptions when dealing with such an unfamiliar language. How can we be sure the aliens understand the distinction between friend and ally? between alien and enemy? between tool and weapon? Banks is also pressed to hurry the process of translating the new language, as other nations, dealing with their own local detachment of alien visitors, are proceeding in their own way, some with a less benign approach than that of Banks’ team. Tensions escalate among the international envoys, as Banks manages to absorb the concept of the aliens’ language, and finally to translate it. Her effort to convey her conviction of a benevolent attempt at contact runs parallel to growing international rivalries and paranoia about the visitors’ real intentions.

Throughout the film, a parallel storyline is taking place, in what appear to be flashbacks from stages of Dr Banks’ life. The flashes make little sense at first except as glimpses of her memory, but the information provided in these episodes eventually combines with the information gained from the alien guests, ultimately coming together at the conclusion. Admittedly, the philosophical theme is a little weaker in the film than in the original short story. Arrival works better as a straightforward drama, and loses ground when it attempts to follow Chiang’s work into more esoteric areas.

Amy Adams is excellent as always, aided by a fine supporting cast including action star Jeremy Renner as a physicist on Banks’ research team, and Forest Whittaker as the colonel in charge of the arrival site. The script, performances, and overall look combine to make for an engrossing, suspenseful drama that goes a little beyond the bounds of its science fiction genre.

Monica Reid.