I'm not normally the first to rush down to the cinema to check out science fiction films but I'd heard very good things about Arrival and had also really enjoyed its director Denis Villeneuve's Sicario so I thought it'd probably be worth a couple of hours of my time. It most certainly was.
As Amy Adams sips red wine, staring out at a beautiful lake, in her immaculately decorated Frank Lloyd Wright style home it's hard to imagine we're in for a gung-ho, action packed, shoot 'em up - and indeed we're not. This is a far more cerebral affair that takes in themes of communication, global geopolitics, the linearity (or not) of our existence, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In case, like me, you're not sure what that is it's the concept that the structure of the language you speak affects your cognition or world view.
So it's not Independence Day. Even though the enormous alien pods that arrive, and hover over, various Earthly destinations are, in places, reminiscent of the spaceships in that movie. They've also something of the 2001 monolith about them. In fact whilst a highly original film (based on Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life) there are plenty of nods and winks for aficionados to look out for. Close Encounters, ET, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, and even Lost in Translation.
Amy Adams is excellent as a linguistic expert who's pulled from a lesson teaching the roots of the Portuguese language by Forest Whitaker's Colonel Weber to work on a top secret mission trying to decipher the messages being received from the pods and whatever it is that lurks inside of them.
She's taken to a verdant Montana valley where she's teamed up with Jeremy Renner's Ian Donnelly. He's a military astrophysicist and, in a welcome change, he very much plays second fiddle to Adams's Louise Banks. Her backstory is fleshed out with the use of flashbacks and heartbreaking interludes of her formerly idyllic life where clearly something went wrong (though not wrong enough for her to lose her stunning house). Renner's character is given no such breadth and, good though he is, has to be content with the role of foil, sidekick, and will-they/won't-they love interest.
Forest Whitaker's great - but then he usually is. His weathered features excellently conveying a seen-it-all listlessness completely at odds with his character's power. He walks a fine line in reconciling those (like Adams and Renner) who wish to take time to learn to communicate with the visitors and the more faceless, militaristic voices of both the US and other nations that are being visited.
This is where the film tries to have its cake and eat it. Whilst wholly commending its message of working together as people, and countries, towards a common goal the film then rather disappointingly, if potentially accurately, lays the blame for the more bellicose responses on the door of the usual suspects.
To be fair, and to avoid spoilers, it makes a good save on this front. Even if it didn't it certainly wouldn't have ruined a suspenseful and intriguing piece of storytelling. There's very few action sequences (more puzzle solving than anything) but the special fx hold up well. Even if the shots of the world's news anchors with their 'Breaking News' flashes is fast becoming the modern equivalent of those once ubiquitous spinning newspapers.
It's beautifully shot at all times, wonderfully acted, particularly by Amy Adams who is rarely off the screen, and it makes you think a bit, makes you do some work. Villeneuve seems to have the knack of effortlessly straddling the thankfully/hopefully fading line between blockbuster and art-house. Which is just as well as he's remaking Blade Runner next!