I really can’t write about this film without mentioning some very fundamental plot points. So please don’t read this if you have any intention of watching the film.
Let me write a little preamble here and let you see the trailer before I go on to providing a whole heap of spoilers:
The story of Arrival is almost exclusively told from the point of view of a university lecturer and linguist Louise Banks played by Amy Adams. When twelve alien vessels park up in random locations across the globe she is recruited by US armed forces to try and communicate with the occupants of the interplanetary craft parked by some great mountainous scenery.
Jeremy Renner has a supporting role as a physicist who manages to lose his geeky glasses very early on in the film, along with Forest Whitaker as the commander of the makeshift military compound that has been laid out near where the spacecraft hovers, stationary and looming like a shapely 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith for the iPhone generation. Meanwhile amid riots and military deployments the world teeters (for pretty much the whole of the film) on the brink of war.
There are some unavoidable similarities and comparisons to make to first contact films like Contact, The Day The Earth Stood Still and of course Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But I have to say for me this films tops them all. There is a feeling of plausibility ingrained within the fantastic story that is not wholly present in these other films and I would say it’s up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of story but without the pomposity of 2001. It is a very personal story somewhat along the lines of Contact but without any of the bullshit science.
Essentially some creatures turn up for reasons unknown and various nations send people into their ships to try and learn how to communicate with them and ask them what their intentions are. The team can’t understand their spoken language and so they try instead to understand their written words characterised by circular ink blots floating in some kind of fluid behind the literal language barrier that separates species. To begin with it’s as simple as that. There’s no wormholes, coloured lights, giant construction projects or dead fathers to deal with.
Although, it seems, there are the haunting memories of the Bank’s dead daughter to deal with. These memories become increasingly like visions to Banks as she learns the alien language and with the help of some pithy script delivered by Renner we learn that perhaps her learning the language is somehow rewiring her brain. This is when things get complicated and the audience as well as the heroine has to make a leap of faith.
It seems that the language has indeed altered her brain and we learn that the ‘memories’ are actually visions of a future child she has yet to have. The gift that has been granted to Banks by the aliens is to be able to see the whole of her lifetime and perceive time in a non-linear fashion. The reason the aliens impart this gift is that in 3000 years time humankind will help their race in a most important but non-specified way. In fact to the aliens this event has already happened.
This circularity in perception of time is mirrored in the alien’s linguistic symbols and also accounts for their continued non-aggression despite being attacked by misguided rogue soldiers who see the aliens as a clear threat. All the aliens do, despite one of their own being killed, is back their craft off a little and deny access to all but Banks.
There’s some timey wimey wibbly wobbly bootstrap paradox stuff when the Chinese major, who in the present is on the edge of bombing the shit out of the alien spacecraft in China’s territorial waters, meets Banks at a party in the future and gives her his private number and a way of proving that she can see into the future – so she can ring him and convince him to stand down. Peep! That was the noise my little brain fart made in the cinema last night. It was a only a little brain fart because years of watching Dr Who have rewired my brain to accept such paradoxes.
Negatives? If I had to think of something, I’d suggest that once the essence of the tale was revealed, the film dragged on an insy-winsy little bit too long and the big reveal over the identity of the father of Banks’s ill-fated daughter was hardly a shock. I was also rather taken aback by the shape of the hole that opens up in the base of the craft to allow the team access. It was a rounded cornered rectangle rather than a circular opening. Given the shapes of all the other alien artifacts, their symbols and the aliens themselves, it seemed an incongruous design choice by the filmmakers in an otherwise perfectly pitched visual treat.
Arrival was certainly thought provoking and cleverly written and rightly puts the Independence Day remake to shame. As far as I can discern (unlike Interstellar for instance) the logic of the story stands up to close examination. It is also beautiful on the big screen with subtle effects, an interesting but not distracting soundtrack and plausible creature design.