21 November 2016

Arrival review

Like all forms of entertainment, films matter. They may seem inconsequential at times, but they help inform how we think and what we think about, defining us as people even if we aren't always aware of the way they do that. 2016 has been a terrible year for a number of reasons (you know the ones), but Arrival's message of unity over division and the importance of international co-operation acts as a vital reminder that humanity is at its best when it puts the bullshit aside and strives for a common goal. Arrival is a really well-made film, one that was always going to be worth watching regardless of when it was released - but in coming out now, Arrival is transformed into something that feels like a downright necessity.

After 12 identical ships touch down in seemingly random locations over Earth, we follow linguist Louise Banks as she is hired by the US Army to communicate with the aliens, known as Heptapods for their seven legs. Deciding early on to focus on written communication over verbal, it's up to her to ensure that they have enough knowledge of the Heptapods' language to ask and understand the answer to "What is your purpose on Earth?" before one of the other nations - or even their own - allows their fear of the aliens to overcome them.

I've always been a sucker for well-made, intelligent science fiction, especially if it's playing with interesting concepts that I haven't seen before, and much to my delight Arrival ticks all of those boxes. Put simply, the story being told here is a deeply interesting one, and the tight focus with which Arrival tells it is quite easily the films biggest strength - there isn't a second of wasted screen time on display here, not a single piece of information given out that doesn't end up being very important sooner or later. Arrival is almost inarguably the most well-written film of the year, and Denis Villeneuve directs the hell out of it, bringing to this the same sense of craft that I'm coming to expect from him.

It's a visually stunning film throughout, whether that be in shots showing off the sheer size of the monolithic Heptapod crafts or in the scenes that show us how the Heptapods move and communicate. Much of this is down to the beautiful cinematography of Bradford Young, but it's also worth talking about the design of the Heptapods themselves and the interior of their ships - Villeneuve excels at making the aliens seem truly alien, offering some truly striking images while also helping show us how difficult attempting to communicate with these radically different beings must be.

And yet Arrival still lacks that special something that really makes it work on an emotional level. 2013's Prisoners and last year's Sicario (both of which were also directed by Villeneuve) suffered from the exact same issue - as inarguably well-made from a technical perspective as they are, there is a certain... sterility to them that means they are always at least arms length away from really making an impact. In that respect, Villeneuve feels a lot like Christopher Nolan - all the ingredients needed to make a film resonate emotionally are there, but the director simply can't quite combine them in the right way. It's a shame that even in a film all about communication, Villeneuve still can't quite connect with his audience.

But that's a fairly minor flaw in an otherwise stellar movie, the kind of complaint that can only really be made when a film is firing on all cylinders in every other area. All said and done, Arrival offers one of the most satisfying, cinematic films of the year at a time when the messages it contains are needed more than ever. I don't know what more you could possibly expect from a movie.

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