Venice 2016: Arrival review


Premiering at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has been greatly anticipated. Firstly, the breakout success of last year’s border epic Sicario has whetted appetites to see where the Canadian filmmaker will go next and secondly, because of the prospect of gleaning how Villeneuve will take to science fiction with the prospect of Blade Runner 2 spinning towards its incept date. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist called in by the highest echelons of the military – Forest Whitaker to you and me – when twelve slate-coloured objects appear suddenly above locations across the world.

Louise’s apparently impossible task is to work out a way of communicating with the aliens and find out, in a nutshell, their intentions. In this she is to be aided by Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner) who is heading the science team. They are all plugged into an international video conference, with teams working at each of the twelve sites and amassing their knowledge. Of which there is very little. Whether they are belligerent or pacifist, even if they have intentions. There is no apparent pattern to their locations – Sheena Easton had a hit in the 1980s in all these places, a commentator glibly remarks – and panic is widespread. Looting soon breaks out. More bellicose nations (like China and Russia – not the US of course, which has never acted aggressively) go to battle stations. Religious millenarians torch their own compounds. So far, so Independence Day.

However, Arrival is more focused than the usual multi-character alien invasion story, which themselves take their templates from the big disaster movies of the 1970s. Louise stands in the tradition of former female science fiction heroes. There is a tragedy in her life which mirrors Sandra Bullock’s damaged astronaut in Gravity and more than a smidgen of Jodie Foster in Contact, though Banks is confrontational, more uncertain, edging her way into the great unknown while at the same time gradually negotiating her way around the military and a suspicious CIA operative (Michael Stuhlbarg). Villeneuve negotiates away from the inner-silliness associated with the premise and keeps his science fiction grounded, avoiding the worst excesses of CGI grandeur while keeping things tactile and every day. The orange of the HAZMAT gear the principals wear have none of the glamour of a space suit.

Many of the most exciting scenes are essentially about language and communication and the aliens themselves, lurking like Lovecraftian monsters with tentacles and knuckles for faces, are well-conceived and their coffee ring script makes for a wonderful visual. Written by Eric Heisserer from a short novella by Ted Chiang, the story weaves its own complex fractal structure that will inspire many an after-film discussion. It is delicate and sometimes grosser Hollywood beats chivvy along the plot – such as a mutinous soldier inspired by a Glenn Beck like radio host preaching fear against the new illegal aliens – in a way that jars with the more meditative aspects. Overall, however, despite some imperfections, Arrival is a close encounter with the best of intelligent, thoughtful science fiction.

The Venice Film Festival takes place from 31 August-10 September. For our coverage follow this link.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty