We seem to be in the midst of a golden moment for science fiction cinema. The last four years have seen, with the consistency of one per year, a series of incredible films that push forward the genre and captivate their audiences - Alfonso Cuarón’s staggering masterpiece ‘Gravity’ (2013), Christopher Nolan’s soulful ‘Interstellar’ (2014) and Ridley Scott’s joyful ‘The Martian’ (2015). And now we have Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’, perhaps the most ambitious and unusual of them all, an instant science fiction classic that pushes the point that what makes great science fiction often has nothing to do with science at all.
Based on Ted Chiang's short story, the film follows linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who finds herself on the front line of the moment of first contact with an alien race when she’s asked to use her skills to interpret their language. With the help of fellow scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise tries to crack their unusual language as fast as she can before an international situation takes over, with unexpected and enormous consequences on her in the process.
‘Arrival’ is a magnificent puzzle box, a film that continues to unfold itself every time you watch it. I’ve now seen it three times, and each viewing has revealed even more detail and power that just makes my love for it even deeper. It asks a lot of its audience, assumes that they have the openness and intelligence to have big questions asked of the film and of themselves, and rewards with exceptional craft and thrilling storytelling. When a genre is as well trodden as sci-fi, it’s remarkable to come across a new entry that’s so unlike any other, certainly on this big-budget level, but ‘Arrival’ offers a visual, aural and narrative landscape that is so deeply soulful and pulsing with integrity that you easily forget that you’re watching a film about aliens.
Villeneuve’s command on the film is remarkable, and along with his extraordinary collaborators, fashions a holistic film that moves gracefully from its thrilling, intense opening act to its hopeful climax. There’s a lot of complexity in the narrative, but it’s a credit to Villeneuve, screenwriter Eric Heisserer and editor Joe Walker that the twists and turns land at precisely the right moments for emotional impact. The texture of the film is also held together by yet another extraordinary score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, an organic tapestry of sound that amplifies the emotional impact of the film. As Louise, Amy Adams delivers one of her finest performances to date, an understated and remarkably complex character trying to find reason and harmony in the chaos of first contact. We see these events through her eyes, follow her confusion, her fear, her frustration and her eventual realisation at the gift she and we have been offered, one that could be squandered before she even has time to understand it. She’s complemented beautifully by terrific performances from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, both of whom add even more integrity to the fabric of the film but with the understanding that ultimately the story belongs to Louise and her journey.
Next week, ‘Arrival’ arrives at the Oscars with eight well-earned nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director), though with Amy Adams snubbed and Jóhannsson’s score deemed ineligible, it should have been more. This is a mighty piece of cinema, an arresting and remarkable achievement that haunts you long after the credits roll. Films this soulful and deep are rare gems, and combined with everything great about science fiction,
It asks a lot of its audience, assumes that they have the openness and intelligence to have big questions asked of the film and of themselves, and rewards with exceptional craft and thrilling storytelling.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Arrival’ looks... okay on Blu-ray. The film looks mostly impressive, but the drab-looking, low contrast image often looks washed out. This affects the intense blacks in the image most of all, of which there is a lot. This doesn’t seem to be an issue with the 1080p 2.39:1 transfer though, as I remember there being similar issues with the image at the cinema, and these faults are only minor and will go mostly unnoticed. However, what’s really disappointing with our release of ‘Arrival’ in Australia is that it only comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track rather than the 7.1 offered in the States. Sound is enormously integral to this film, and the fact we haven’t even been given the best possible track for this release is an enormous and inexcusable oversight. It still sounds great and packs a lot of punch, but you can’t help but feel the absence of what could have been.
Thankfully, all of the handsome special features offered on the U.S. release have been carried over. ‘Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival’ (30:03) offers a terrific overview of the making of the film, from the development of the short story into the remarkable screenplay, through to design and casting. It would have been great to have a meaty documentary on this film, but the detail in this feature is substantial enough to satisfy a lot of curiosity. ‘Principles of Time, Memory, & Language’ (15:24) digs deeper into the complex theories around time and language that the film engages with, offering a bit more information to help unlock some of the more complex ideas in the film. The rest of the featurettes cover the incredible post-production work - ‘Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design’ (13:59) goes into great detail about the complex sound design, ‘Nonlinear Thinking: The Editing Process’ (11:20) looks at the challenges and possibilities offered the editors by the film’s unusual structure, and ‘Eternal Recurrence: The Score’ (11:24) looks at the construction of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s magnificent score, one of the real highlights of the film.