Is it better to have loved than have lost? The question asked by director Denis Villeneuve’s new film, Arrival, is very much along the same philosophical lines, and getting to that point provides viewers with a compelling, grown-up, cerebral cinematic experience.
Based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning short story, Story of Your Life.
Some time after a family tragedy, linguist Louise Banks is visited by the US military, for who she has previously undertaken translation work.
This time, the world is in panic after 12 vast spacecraft appear across the globe, hovering just above terra firma.
With host nations forced into sharing information in an effort to work out what’s happening, Banks is to accompany Ian Donnelly, a military theoretical physicist inside a ship in Montana, where they will face a pair of aliens and try to communicate.
But as they appear to be making some headway, crisis nears, as one host nation after another threatens to attack the unknown visitors.
It’s to Villeneuve’s great credit that a film where linguistics is such an important component never lags, even though it builds up slowly and allows time for some linguistic theory to be explained. And however emotional the story is – and it is – it never leaks into mawkishness or cheap sentimentality.
The aliens are as alien as could be imagined and, even more important, their way of communication is also completely alien, while Bank’s methods of trying to break down that barrier ring completely true.
Amy Adams turns in a superb performance as Banks – quietness, fortitude, fear and grief all conveyed with great subtlety. It would be a surprise if she doesn't feature when the Oscar nominations are announced early next year.
Jeremy Renner (last seen by me in the utterly dreadful Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) proves a perfect foil – again, this is a finely-judged piece of screen acting.
Forest Whitaker is in fine form as a senior US military officer, weary, under pressure to provide fast answers, but with enough intelligence to be persuaded by Banks, while Michael Stuhlbarg as a smarmy CIA officer lends further weight to proceedings.
The look of it is fascinating, from soft-focus Montana landscapes to the dark, almost monochrome look of the spacecraft interiors – though one could suggest that some scenes could have benefitted from a little more light, but this is being pernickety.
Jóhan Jóhansson’s score is worth noting, but I particularly liked the use of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, which bookends the film.
Arrival is a fine, contemplative film. It’s in cinemas now.