Before Star Wars leaped into our media consciousness in 1977, science fiction films were considerably different. After being a schlock stock of trade in the 1950’s and early 1960’s with a tirade of films featuring someone or something either becoming significantly larger, mutated or both (Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch pops into mind: “All of them HORRIBLY LARGE from RADIATION”), the genre was brought into more slower-paced, thought-provoking territory. With Godard’s Alphaville in 1965, and continuing three years later with Kubrick’s 2001, the science fiction film became a format for more mature concepts. While the giant whatever sub-genre continued into the 1970’s (due mainly to the efforts of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon — don’t get me wrong, I love his films), they were countered with the likes of The Andromeda Strain, Solaris, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s entry the same year Star Wars premiered — Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Over the past few decades, a scant few other fruits have dropped from the “serious sci-fi” tree, which include Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Blade Runner in 1982, Terry Gilliam’s visionary 12 Monkeys in 1995, Ron Howard’s moving take on the Carl Sagan novel Contact in 1997 and most recently 2004’s Primer and Moon in 2009. Most recently, in the vein of all of the above and more, comes Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
Arrival is the tale of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is thrust from a life of bland academia into the forefront of an alien invasion. Paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician, they are tasked with trying to communicate with the inhabitants of an alien craft, one of twelve that have appeared above different countries on Earth. Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), makes them aware of the global situation, albeit from a military point of view. The rest of the film is about how they not only manage to communicate with the visitors but also with each other.
While avoiding spoilers (believe me, I hate them much more than you do), that last sentence bears more review. As I have stressed throughout this writing, this is no Independence Day. It is slower paced, logical and heady, but not without a wealth of surprising ideas and intimate emotion. A bit of patience is required for those used to more action-oriented fare, but for fans of the movies mentioned above, it is a revelation. Communication is the main theme of the film, and, like my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, it is about the struggle to surmount the differences to find the greater good of what we all share. Cue the music:
Adams is incredible (as always), and Renner, who basically plays to the audience’s emotional state throughout the film, more than fills the role. Whitaker makes a credibly crusty Colonel, although I’m much more looking forward to him in the upcoming Rogue One. While the effects are seamless and awe-inspiring, the cinematography spot-on and the music successfully reflecting both alien and human themes, the real stars of the show are Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s direction. Going into detail about how they are would truly spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen Arrival, but needless to say, if you’re a fan of “old school” science fiction with genuinely thought-provoking and emotionally moving themes, this film is definitely for you.