Given the state of the world at the moment, awash as it is with IS insurgency, Brexit, the radicalised far right voting in extremist presidents in place as far removed as Turkey, the Philippines and even the United States, the idea of aliens arriving with a message of unified, cooperative peace as they do in Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival is, in theory at least, a welcome one.
Admittedly they arrive in 12 gigantic crescent-shaped ships spread across the world which can, and does to the military at least, look more than a little threatening; but it’s all done with the aim of encouraging us to work as one so we can help them in three thousand years or so, hence it remains an offer of help regardless of its motivation.
Of course when first they land, the people of Earth, fractious and apt to leap to unsupportable conclusions, have no idea why they are here; silent as sentinels on watch, they sit passive, silent and immovable, neither welcoming nor aggressive, flying rock edifices that open hatches every 18 hours to let those brave enough to enter do so.
It is up to people like Dr Susan Banks (Amy Adams in a career-defining performance), as close as the field of linguistics has to a superstar, and theoretical physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to figure what it is our unexpected visitors want as quickly as possible with the clock ticking down to a totally unnecessary but all too characteristic showdown with the military powers of the planet (represented by Colonel Weber, a US military officer played by Forest Whitaker).
Unlike many other sci-fi films where the aliens arrive, universal translator in hand and are swapping stories or cataclysmic threats in no time flat, these immense five-legged octopus-like heptapods, as they’re christened, commune in swirling ink circles that hover for a moment before dissipating in the otherworldly ether in which they live.
These are properly alien creatures in every sense of the word, and Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life”, takes its time getting to know them, and people like Banks and Donnelly, who slowly come together in a way than is as authentic as it is affecting.
While it shares many of the tropes of standard alien invasion movies such as spaceships appearing throughout the world with no warning, people of all races devolving into anxious, rioting melees, and the military chomping at the bit to retaliate even when there is no quantifiable threat as yet, Villeneuve’s film is a far more poetically meditative and cerebral beast.
It devotes much of its enjoyably slow-moving narrative to the beautifully-realised exploration of what it is these aliens want and if it possible to bridge the damn-near cavernous void that exists between humanity’s linear idea of things and our visitors’ non-linear view of time and space which finds deeply artistic expression in the infinity circles that form the basis of their communication.
In that respect, Arrival is a gem, an effortlessly exquisite work of great patience and beauty that deliberately and painstakingly takes its time, augmented by a luminously-uplifting score by Johann Johansson, to join humanity and aliens together in a mutually-beneficial relationship that could be the making our increasingly fractured and divided world.
The great flaw in this thoroughly immersive work of cinematic art is that it ends up being a case of style over substance with its upliftingly hopeful message of peace and cooperation – the idea is that by understanding the aliens’ time-removed language that we will somehow come to think and act like them – delivered with all the narrative finesse of blunt-forced trauma.
Squeezed like too much filling into a finitely-expansive sausage case, the moral of the story sits clumsily alongside its more visually-contemplative expression, a strangely-discordant juxtaposition in Eric Heisserer’s otherwise largely-poetic script.
You can understand why it attempts to be all things to all people, giving us the cerebral insight of Contact with the blow-em-up, bang-em-up thrills of Independence Day with a touch of Signs thrown in but it doesn’t quite work, almost becoming too obtuse for its own good at times.
Art often eclipses a cohesive and meaningful storyline, and while the mystery of whether Dr Banks’ memories of a daughter is past or present – we are led to believe it is the former at first but as the film progresses that is thrown into doubt – is beguiling and emotionally-resonant, and her growing bond with Donnelly appealing, it feels oddly tacked on to this otherwise highly-intelligent film.
One theme that emerges strongly throughout is whether we as individuals and as a people are brave enough to take a leap into the unknown, even knowing, in all its fullness, what lies ahead for us.
It applies both to Banks’ personal life and that of the people of Earth as a whole, and is a richly-philosophical thread in a visually-sumptuous film.
But it is counter-balanced by the more ham-fisted insertion of standard sci-fi tropes and an awkwardly-expressed message that is supposed to be overpoweringly inspiring, and granted is in some respects, but which leavens the movie’s overall reach and effect.
Arrival is still a significant cut above many of its genre compatriots rewarding us with a narrative that takes its time to reach some divinely-beautiful, deeply-resonant places but it also stumbles as much as it soars, bringing what could have been an amazingly transportive film down to merely very good.