It’s a great feeling to watch a film for the first time and suspect it might become a favourite. Arrival was a revelation. A beautifully produced film, it was reassuring to see science fiction treated with respect and as a very human story. As a piece of filmmaking, it was extraordinary and ambitious. You can read The Digital Fix review of the cinema release here.
The story begins as 12 mysterious spaceships have appeared over seemingly random locations around the world. The military approach Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a leading expert in linguistics, to communicate with the alien visitors. She teams up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who is there to understand the physics of their arrival. As Louise deciphers more of the unique language, it affects her own sense of time and memory.
Arrival is even better second time around. There is a twist in the story that is no such thing and knowing how it ends lets the narrative breathe as it should; you can appreciate all the more Amy Adams’ nuanced performance. It is impressive how well it was adapted from the short story, The Story of You by Ted Chiang. His version is built around a clever conceit and it is a small, personal story about Louise from her perspective. That is respected and intact within the film. Ted’s (very) short story also featured some excellent insights into the way language is built. That too is transposed perfectly. What the original didn’t concern itself with is a sense of peril and fear, so the film builds danger and time running out by making it a stronger global concern; the US are racing against the rest of the world to decipher the intentions of the aliens. Louise is determined to prove that success can only come of working together. Globalisation is a dirty word in 2017, but should be encouraged here! There are also some subtle digs at the xenophobia that would propel Donald Trump to the US Presidency. The original release of the film was uncanny, but the overall themes are timeless.
Eric Heisserer’s screenplay is fantastic, creating a version of the story that can exist alongside the original. Denis Villeneuve exploits this with an extraordinary vision of direction and mise en scène; Louise’s world is linear at the beginning, accentuated by patterns in the ceilings, shelving and windows. This is in contrast to the softer, indistinct memories of her daughter. So too the editing becomes more fractured as the narrative gives way.
Since the films initial release, Villeneuve has been working on a promising sequel to Blade Runner and he’s connected with a remake of Dune. Can it even be a remake when the previous versions have missed the mark? On the evidence of Arrival, science fiction cinema is in an excellent pair of hands.
Bradford Young’s beautiful photography should be seen on the big screen, but loses little impact on a small one. The images of the spacecraft, with rolling clouds is incredible, but so is the detail close up. A Blu-Ray preview was unavailable for review, but on DVD at least, the soft lighting, smoky grey hues and bright contrast are retained. It’s a safe bet the Blu-Ray emphasises the gorgeous detail.
Both Sylvain Bellemare’s Academy Award winning sound editing and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s incredible music are ingrained with the narrative. The tweet of a budgie or the memory of a page being turned in a book cuts through the environmental sounds. The first venture inside the spacecraft is breathtaking, especially combined with Bradford Young’s photography. It creates an enigmatic, imposing spell and Villeneuve appears to have captured something of what Akira might have been like if directed by Stanley Kubrick. The sound can be oppressive or emotional and it works hard throughout to capture that sense of awe.
This is a good release with the extra features, but they are thin and somewhat inconsequential. Especially as the lofty titles infer more detail than that which is presented. It’s the usual clutch of interviews with people who loved working with one another and created things we have “literally, never seen before in the history of cinema”. And they could be right; it’s hard to be too cynical, considering the film is incredible. Still, there are some insights to be had into the adaptation, the extraordinary sound editing and the ambitious narrative. And Ted Chiang talks about the inspiration behind his short story.
One of the best films of last year, Arrival is proper, grown-up science fiction that rewards multiple viewings. And after Sicario and Prisoners, and now with the Blade Runner sequel about to be released, Denis Villeneuve is going from strength to strength.
Arrival is released on VOD from the 6th March and on Blu-Ray and DVD on the 20th March.