It’s been a week since I went to the cinema to see Arrival. I’ve thought it at least once every day. I wrote my usual review fairly quickly post-watching on Letterboxd, but I knew that it wouldn’t capture what I wanted. This was a film that needed more though. That review was a first reaction of sorts, spoiler free as much as possible but so much shorter than it could have been. There’s simply just so much to say about this film, I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess that’s why I’ve spent the best part of seven days trying to pen this.
Warning – There be spoilers ahead…
I’m a strong believer in films acting as a therapeutic measure. They have a way of connecting with me on ridiculous levels sometimes. They hit you in ways you never saw coming, or open your eyes to a place or an idea. Sometimes they come along and give you exactly what you need. Arrival felt like all of these in some way for me. It’s got an overtly good and positive message at its heart but the most important feeling it taps into is one of hope. We could all use a little hope at the minute, right?
Tapping into a lot of things that are current and topical, such as how much longer does the world have if nothing changes, do we trust other countries, could we come together if we needed to. Paranoia and a media circus for everything are also explored. The portrayal of the media and the coverage felt intrusively accurate too. We are becoming a world who struggle with even basic communication, who find it easier to connect through a mobile screen phone than in face to face conversation, so it was a nice reminder that communication, and how that communication is interpreted, are so vital.
It tackles some pretty spectacularly complex ideas and makes them accessible but never dumbs them down too much either. Villeneueve treats those who watch his films as intelligent adults and you’re left to come to your own conclusions and ideas about several aspects of the film. So from this point onward, I’m going to warn that we’re heading into spoiler territory.
The ideas that hit home seem simple when you think about it. Kindness, being open-minded and collaboration. That all we truly require to save ourselves is intelligence and each other. There’s also the underlying themes of family and of loss that become more important with our understanding of time in the film but we’ll come back to that. I’ve rarely been in such a quiet, invested cinema screen before so it clearly worked for the audience I was with. I’ll admit that the ending didn’t quite bring me to tears, but it did move me still.
Now, time. The film explores time in a nonlinear way. Well, at first you think you’re seeing it in the same way you see many films. Opening with a past event that has shaped, and continues to shape, the central character. Then the present with more flashbacks to the past and thoughts of the future. What if what you thought was the past was never really that, but instead the future? Would you change it to avoid pain. That’s partly what I loved the most, the answer being no. Yes, some of these twists you could see coming but they never frustrated or annoyed me in any way.
In Louise, Villeneueve and Amy Adams, who plays her, built a superb character. Balanced enough to feel real. Strong and vulnerable simultaneously. She could so easily have been painted as a victim, but her pain was handled with care. Adams’ has the perfect kind of face for this sort of acting, the ability to convey so, so much with just the look in her eyes. There’s a particularly perfect shot through her hazmat suit helmet that said so much more than any written line could have. I also felt her relationships with all of the characters felt genuine. The parts between her and Jeremy Renner’s character, he’s also great by the way, were nicely done. The romance element was never over played but the hints that it was coming were certainly there. Their intelligent conversations made for a pleasant surprise too.
It was good to see Renner in a role like this and he got some of the best lines in the film. It had more humour than I expected, the Sheena East joke a particular hit for me. It’s hardly his fault though that Adams just stole the show. She’s in most of the scenes and she’s utterly captivating. I’ve been a fan for a while but it’s nice that she’s getting so much attention at the minute. I’m not so secretly hoping that her turn in this will get her an Oscar nomination in the New Year.
It’s a film that’s drawn a lot of comparisons. It’s reminded some of Contact, others of Close encounters of the third kind, and then somebody also mentioned Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. Oddly, I hadn’t quite made that association straight away. I should have though, it’s another film I love that tackles sci-fi and other-worldly creatures at a different angle to the norm. Monsters also focuses on the human aspect of the story, of displacement and of communication. It was on a tiny scale in comparison to Arrival, but the influence is still clear. I’ll definitely catch both as companion pieces at some point soon. The monsters in the film were onscreen less than the Heptapods here, which I’m coming back to imminently, but the impact was no less spectacular. For those who have seen it, the scene in the petrol station is a wow moment.
Now, the Heptapods here. Wow. I was in awe, and a little scared, simultaneously. They looked incredible and their language, the written kind, looked superb. The comparison to an octopus and the ink they drew their words with, yeah I was hooked. The production and set design was stunning all around. The ships they came in were very cool too. You think of floating ships and it’s hard to get away from the ones in Independence Day but these were different. Like sculptures that don’t quite match their surroundings.
Even before we were introduced to them and their ships, there were hints that it was coming. One particular shooting technique I loved in the film, was replicated several times. It was a sort of panning up that felt as if you were stood behind some space ships doors as they opened and revealed the outside to you. A subtle hint to be open and welcoming to the unfamiliar perhaps? The whole film was a joy on the eye though. I’d heard some complain that it was too dark, but I didn’t feel that way. Light and shadow are used cleverly (as with all of Villeneuve’s work) but never too much. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, did a great job with this. The standout shot has to be when we first see the ship with the rolling fog around it.
Finally, a word for Johann Johannsson’s absolutely gorgeous score. It sounded lovely, and tonally great, during the film, but listening to it isolated away from the film, it hit me even harder. I think my favourite piece from it is ‘One of twelve’ with its nods to ‘The Beast’ from Sicario. It’s a score worthy of the big ideas and intelligence it’s playing alongside. The Villeneuve-Johannsson combination has so far produced great score after great score.
I’m excited to see Arrival again and see what else I can take away from it or notice on a second viewing. It would have to be a ridiculous last few weeks of the year at the cinema for this not to be very high up in my Top 10 of 2016.