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Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival

It don't get much better than this folks.

Plot synopsis: When a number of alien spacecrafts appear all over the world, the United States government approaches brilliant linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, to try and make contact with the mysterious beings residing in the one hovering over an open space deep in the American heartland.

Review: Wedged between the slow burn of his brilliant crime drama, Sicario, and the audacious sequel to one of the most acclaimed science fiction films of all time, Blade Runner 2049, Arrival solidifies Denis Villeneuve as one of the most exciting filmmakers out there right now and as one of the few who may not make a total pig's ear out of the new Blade Runner film.

The basic plot of Arrival is even more stripped down than most "first contact" stories but the true brilliance of this immaculately assembled masterpiece is the way it uses the bare-bones simplicity of its fantastical premise to explore themes that are complex, profound and thoroughly human. It's not, technically speaking, particularly original as it draws on everything from classic Arthur C. Clarke stories (2001: a Space Odyssey and Childhood's End being particularly obvious influences) to Christopher Nolan's still quite underrated Interstellar but it sets itself apart both by just how liberally it throws out enough Big Ideas to fill a dozen other films and in its ability to keep all of its lofty ambitions firmly rooted in the emotional realities of the human experience.


Arrival's plot may have everything to do with a group of imposingly intelligent, highly skilled individuals trying to understand the intentions of a truly alien race of beings but what's the film is really about is far more multi-faceted and intriguing. Dealing with themes of loss, the nature of time and how language has the ability to both doom us and elevate us, as one, to whole new levels of consciousness, the mystery of who and what the aliens are doesn't just deepen as the film goes on but widens in scope as each revelation unfolds.

Still, for all of its weighty, cerebral ideas, it isn't a film that loses sight of the importance of characterisation and good old fashioned drama in making something that is as gripping and as moving as it is intriguing. Anchored by a vulnerable, understated performance by the reliably terrific Amy Adams as Louise Banks, Arrival's top drawer cast keep things at a human level throughout and the decision to focus on, what is basically, a group of nerds over the military or the White House, even when the film springs into relative "thriller" mode, maintains a relatability and an all important everyman perspective on what could so easily get lost in its own lofty importance.

Really, though, however good people like Jeremy Renner or Forest Whitaker are in the film, it really does come to Amy Adams. On paper, her character could easily be seen as just another brilliant genius struggling with personal problems and tragedy but Adams brings real nuance to the role. Her Louise Banks is more than just the sum of her backstory and her incredible language skills but is a woman of great complexity; a fully drawn human being of compassion, obstinacy, courage, sadness, quiet strength and plenty of warmth.

Without her at the centre of the film, all the big ideas, beautifully realised aliens, international intrigue and narrative twists and turns would never have worked anywhere near as well as they did. This as much a story of one woman's confrontation with her own past and future as it about the next step for humanity and it's this that truly separates Arrival from something like the excellent but dispassionate 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood's End (as I say, the Arthur C. Clarke comparisons are unavoidable here).

It's this underlying, grounded humanity every bit as much as the absolutely immaculate filmmaking that ensures that Arrival stands tall as easily one of the best films of the year and one of the great science fiction films of the century so far.

And that's even acknowledging the fact that, despite the fact that I don't usually do this, I actually saw the film's big twist coming a mile away!


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