Review: Arrival

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A powerful sci-fi drama, that will not only leave you on the edge of your seat, but also reaffirm your faith in humanity.

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What a fortnight Amy Adams has had, first with Nocturnal Animals last week and now Arrival. If she doesn’t get nominated for the former film, it’ll surely only be because she’s been nominated for this instead.

Arrival follows Adams’ character, Professor of Linguistics Dr. Louise Banks, after she is recruited by the U.S. government to translate the language of an alien species who have landed on Earth in twelve orbs, dispersed globally in seemingly random locations.  It’s hard to say any more about the film than that without spoiling it, as it is a much better experience to go in, like the characters, with no knowledge of what’s going to happen, and experience how the world reacts to this new alien encounter, first hand.  As a result, the film starts off almost like a tense sci-fi thriller, as we follow Louise, and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) begin their first encounter with the aliens. The motivations behind this sudden landing, and more importantly, whether these creatures are peaceful, is unknown, leaving both you and the protagonists terrified of how events will unfold.

Adams is outstanding as the linguistics expert given the task of deciphering this strange alien language, in order to establish communication. She brilliantly conveys the emotional impact being thrust into this strange militaristic world would have on an ordinary person. It is her performance, and not the special effects, that convince you that the events happening onscreen could be real, and not just of another sci-fi fantasy. Renner is similarly amazing as Adams’ colleague, whose optimism and excitability contrasts vividly to Adams’ caution and weariness. However, a romantic subplot between the two of them is badly handled, and somewhat unconvincing.

At the start of the film we learn that Louise’s teenage daughter, Hannah, has recently died from a rare genetic disease, and as the film progresses, we are shown various interactions between Louise and Hannah at different points in her life. This subplot contrasts sharply with the tense and enigmatic tone of the main story, and these very human scenes seem completely out of place in a sci-fi film about alien contact. In the end, however, their relevance is finally revealed. It is credit to screenwriter Eric Heisserer that he able to conclude a complicated story with many different subplots in a satisfying and impactful way, which will undoubtedly leave a tear in your eye, and returning for a re-watch.

Indeed, despite what the marketing for the film would suggest, it is an incredibly human drama, focusing not just on the massive alien presence but on humanity, both individually, and as a species. A major theme of the story is international cooperation, as the film demonstrate the need for various different nations to work together to solve a common problem, and the difficulties that arise when a small minority decide to isolate themselves. Likewise, over the course of the film, we are shown how our lives are continuously altered and reformed by the experiences we face and the relationships we form.

Arrival not only shows the beauty in humanity, but does so more effectively than many social dramas, and whilst the film may not be perfect, it is certainly one of the most powerful films to be released this year.

Arrival (2016), directed by Dennis Villeneuve, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One. Certificate 12A.

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