Wow – what a surprise.
Sometimes I can get very irritated by a trailer for giving too much away (case in point, “Room” – which I recut – and more recently “Passengers”). Sometimes I can get very excited by a really good teaser trailer (case in point, “10 Cloverfield Lane”). But most of the time a “ho hum” trailer typically drives the expectation of a “ho hum” film: “Jack Reacher: Never Look Back” being a good recent example. Then there is “Arrival”…
Because the trailer for “Arrival” belies absolutely nothing about the depth and complexity of the film. At face value, it looks like a dubious “Close Encounters” wannabe, with a threat of movement towards the likes of “Independence Day” and “The 5th Wave”. Actually what you get is a film that approaches the grandeur of “Close Encounters” but interlaces it with the intellectual depth of “Inception”, the mystery of “Intersteller” and a heavy emotional jolt or two of “Up”.
Amy Adams (“Batman vs Superman”) plays Dr Louise Banks, a language teacher at a US university facing a bunch of particularly disengaged students one morning. For good reason since world news is afoot. Twelve alien craft have positioned themselves strategically around the world, hanging a few feet from the ground in just the sort of way that bricks don’t. Banks is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and offered the job of trying to communicate with the aliens: where did they come from? why are they here? Banks faces the biggest challenge of her academic career in trying to devise a strategy for communication without any foundation of knowledge on what level communication even works at for them. Assisted by Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner, “Mission Impossible IV/V”, “Avengers”), a theoretical physicist, the pair try to crack the code against a deadline set by the inexorable rise of international tensions – driven by China’s General Chang (Tzi Ma, “Veep”; “24”).
Steven Spielberg made a rare error of judgement by adding scenes in his “Special Edition” of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” showing everyman power guy Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) entering the alien spacecraft. Some things are best left to the imagination. Here, a reprise of that mistake seems inevitable, but – perversely – seems to be pulled off with mastery and aplomb. The aliens are well rendered, and the small scale nature of the set (I’m sure I’ve been in similar dingy waiting rooms in UK railway stations!) is cleverly handled by the environmental conditions.
But where the screenplay really kills it is in the emergence of the real power unleashed by the translation work. To say any more would deliver spoilers, which I won’t do. But this is a masterly piece of science-fiction writing. The screenplay was by Eric Heisserer – someone with a limited scriptwriting CV of horror film reboots/sequels such as “Final Destination 5”, “The Thing” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” – so the portents were not good, which just adds to the surprise. If I were to be critical, some of the dialogue at times is a little TOO clever for its own good and smacks of Aaron Sorkin over-exposition: the comment about “They have a word for it in Hungary” for example went right over my head.
Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) deftly directs, leaving the pace of the story glacially slow in places to let the audience deduce what is going on at their own speed. This will NOT be to the liking of movie fans who like their films in a wham-bam of CGI, but was very much to my liking. The film in fact has very little exposition, giving you lots to think about after the credits roll: there were elements of the story (such as her book) that still generated debate with my better half on the drive home.
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are first rate and an effectively moody score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (“Sicario”; “The Theory of Everything”) round off the other high-point credits for me.
An extraordinary film, this is a must see for sci-fi fans but also for lovers of good cinema and well-crafted stories.
Fad Rating: FFFFF.