I am not really into sci-fi as a film genre. Unless it is part of the ‘Alien’/’Predator’ franchise (which undoubtably includes ‘Prometheus’ (2012)), then generally I am not interested. This is the attitude I sadly went into the cinema with before watching ‘Arrival’ last week, which is the new drama mystery sci-fi film directed by Denis Villeneuve.
I really did not like the advert for this film. I thought it looked like a stereotypical American “feel-good” movie about discovering UFOs, and communicating with other life forms in the universe in a sickly self-righteous way. However, I feel that these scenes were purposefully chosen to give this illusion, and gave little away of the actual plot of the film, and that the film in fact had another dimension.
‘Arrival’ is a film in which 12 pod-shaped extraterrestrial spacecrafts mysteriously land in different locations around the world – one of which being America. Consequently, the US Army recruit Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is a Professor of Linguistics at one of America’s top universities, to help communicate with the aliens, along with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. The pair manage to make contact with 2 of the “heptapods” (the 7 limbed creatures aboard the craft), and Louise discovers that the aliens use a written language of complicated circular symbols to communicate with. They begin to learn that the symbols correspond to basic vocabulary, but are unable to decipher whether the aliens know the difference between a ‘weapon’ and a ‘tool’. Consequently, America, along with 11 other nations that the spacecrafts landed in, struggle to find out what the aliens’ purpose on Earth actually is, as these nations face different obstacles (like political barriers) that they have to overcome before time runs out.
Although the film appears like a generic UFO film, hinting at what America is capable of should a spacecraft land in the US, there is another dimension to this film that I really liked. As mentioned in my previous posts, I do not like spoiling the plot of a film, so will not give the twist of the film away. Instead, I will speak about how my expectations of the film (i.e. that this was going to be shit) were shattered, and the strengths and weaknesses of the film – avoiding any spoilers.
From the advert, I thought that Ian (Renner) looked like an arrogant scientist, who was going to be a hinderance (like most stereotypical scientists in such films) to making vital discoveries. However, he helps Louise (Adams) interact successfully with the aliens, makes crucial theoretical discoveries and, beyond his initial introduction in the film, is not annoying at all. Similarly, I thought that Professor Banks was going to be a weak, flawed character, by letting her emotions get in the way of her work. This, to some extent, is accurate. However, she uses this to break forward and pushes herself in order to strive in her work. Consequently, I thought that the casting of this film was extremely good, and that the advert did not do them justice. This includes CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), both of whom take assertive figures of authority.
Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to Professor Louise Banks’ life, which come to light whilst she is trying to decipher what the aliens’ are communicating. These include visions of Ms Banks’ family life, as well as her becoming a renowned linguist. I thought that these scenes were shot beautifully (lots of shallow depth of field was used), which symbolise their poignance and meaning to her. Therefore, I thought that the film was edited extremely well. This film was edited by Joe Walker (best known for his work on ’12 Years a Slave’ (2013) and ‘Sicario’ (2015)), who I think did a dramatic yet poignant edit of this non-linear film, and used CGI in a tasteful and understated way (considering that it was a sci-fi film). Similarly, the soundtrack for ‘Arrival’, which was composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson (best known for ‘Sicario’ (2015) and ‘The Theory of Everything’ (2014)), beautifully complimented the edit. The accompaniment and soundtrack was dramatic where it needed to be, yet light and reminiscent in the appropriate places. Likewise, the human interactions with the “heptapods” were made that more atmospheric and daunting by the special effects.
In short, I thought that ‘Arrival’ was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. It was not the best UFO film I have ever seen, but kept my attention and was overall very entertaining. I thought that the CGI used was spectacular as it was not excessively used, and instead was quite understated for a sci-fi film. Sometimes, CGI heavy films completely underwhelm me. For example, I felt that as ‘Gravity’ (2013) was a very CGI-oriented film, and as I hadn’t watched it in the cinema, could not get my head around why people liked it so much…. Although ‘Arrival’ is a film intended to be seen in the big screen, I feel that there is enough interesting plot and back story / does not solely rely on special effects, to get away with this. Therefore, I would recommend this film, but am unsure I would have had such a warm reaction coming out of the film had I not gone in with such low expectations. True fans of the sci-fi genre will love this film.