Denis Villeneuve prods at the mysteries of the far reaches of space by grounding his alien movie firmly in Montana: the land of open prairies and nosey militants.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
For someone who is convinced we’re not alone in the universe, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is about as close as I will get to first contact with an alien race. Brooding and utterly tense, it plays on our collective history of aliens in books, TV shows and movies. It plants a seed of apprehension in our minds before reassuring us that all is okay – not all foreigners come to Earth and immediately want to incinerate famous landmarks. Some of them might just want to talk.
And how do they talk? That’s the magic of Arrival, which develops a written alien language that resembles coffee stains, and contains – we are told – complete sentences in perfect rings of squid ink. It’s the equivalent of us instantly writing a sentence with both hands, from the outside in. We’d have to know precisely what we’re going to say before we even think it. These aliens not only think fast, but have completely revolutionised the laws of space, time, and the physical world.
I say all this not to sound drab, but to highlight just how fascinating this alien species is, and how convincingly Villeneuve’s CGI team assembles them out of pixels. The creatures look like massive skeletal hands that reach down from smoky heights, and their craft – of which there are twelve, scattered across the globe at random – looks like a massive granite surfboard that moves without any visible source of propulsion.
But then the awe and majesty of these larger-than-life creatures is expunged with a melancholy and often confusing human angle that involves time travel and loss, effectively sidelining the aliens from their own movie. Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguistic professor who once helped the army translate Farsi so well she has become their prime candidate to meet with the aliens and decipher their cryptic coffee messages. Her partner in crime is a dorky-looking Jeremy Renner, a physicist of some kind who later breaks the code miraculously while Louise suffers a mental breakdown.
And then there are the biggest players in alien movies: the United States Army, led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Always prepared, always prejudiced, always ready to shoot first and never ask questions. Arrival’s greatest achievement is holding off on the automatic rifle fire till about three-quarters of the way through the film. In a lesser movie, bullets would’ve been flying over the opening credits. We all fear what we don’t understand. Well, the US army appears to understand very little, indeed.
Look, Arrival is masterfully put together and Villeneuve once again makes a movie that doesn’t treat its audience like a bunch of buffoons, but just once I would’ve liked to sit through an alien mystery without having to worry about love affairs and meddling CIA agents and uncooperative Chinese generals. Arrival grips you in the beginning and well through its middle chunk, but loses the courage to see its brilliant premise to the end. It relies unfavourably on human beings behaving like all human beings do when faced with interplanetary crisis, by responding first with paranoia and then with all-out aggression.
Arrival is available in Australian cinemas from November 10
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films