Welcome to week two of Amy Adams appreciation fortnight. For the last few years, it seems that there has been a trend for the latter half of the year to bring us a science-fiction adventure that breaks out of it’s genre confines and finds appeal with the mass audience. Of late, films like Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian are all great examples of this, and it seems as though the next in line for this kind of praise is Arrival, a big screen adaptation inspired by a forty page short story by Ted Chiang called Story Of Your Life. With Nocturnal Animals leaving me slightly more underwhelmed than most critics, would Amy Adams appreciation fortnight end on a high or in similar fashion?
Arrival tells the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an American linguistics expert who is whisked away by the US government and tasked with helping them decipher the language of an alien race who have landed on earth in huge oval pods in twelve different locations across the globe. Together with the help of scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the pair work under tense global conditions with the likes of Russia and China to try to build a rapport with the aliens, turning to a mysterious symbolic written language that may or may not hold the answers to all of the questions that the human race has for them, namely, what is your purpose here? The first thing to say about Arrival is that it is an unapologetic slow burn, but if you have the patience to adapt your viewing to the pace of the narrative then you will be rewarded with one of the most captivating and innovative stories I have experience this year. The film plants it’s flag in the ground of knowledge and logic very early on, so if you are going on expecting an Independence Day style battle for earth, then you have come to the wrong place. What Arrival does is present the audience a tale of alien, well arrival, rather than invasion! The joy of the narrative is in the minutia of Louise and Ian’s interactions with the strange beings, which, by the way, are innovatively and enigmatically designed. Like all of the best movie going experiences, just after the half way point the picture turns on it’s head and a fantastic reveal leaves you questioning everything you have seen up to that point. I feel that I won’t have truly received everything the film has to offer until I have watching it again, and that is not due to narrative mudiness, but to narrative depth.
Like I said, Arrival is not going to be the kind of science-fiction romp that quenches your thirst for laser battles and gravity defying explosions, it is a much more cerebral experience that will ask you to engage with your brain and reaffirm your appreciation for gentle, rewarding story telling. If I were searching for an immediate comparison, it wouldn’t be too off base to mention it in the same breath of something like 1997’s Contact. It’s nice to see a sci-fi film that is more interested in why the aliens have come to earth rather than the playing out of cliche battle set pieces of corn fields burning and government buildings exploding.
Amy Adams gives a strong, charismatic performance as Louise Banks, one of the rare instances in cinema where a ‘smart woman’ character is actually portrayed through her actions rather than just a descriptive note in a screenplay. In a very similar fashion to her commanding performance in Nocturnal Animals, Adams has a real talent for evoking emotion and capturing attention even when she is saying very little, and her calm and controlled screen presence is perfect for making her deeply intelligent linguistic expert character a believable one. Thought Jeremy Renner as scientist Ian Donnelly does nothing particularly wrong, there is something about his performance as a theoretical physicist that doesn’t strike me as being entirely authentic. Perhaps the actor suffers from having to work alongside the far more accomplished Adams, or perhaps the character just isn’t give as much time as Louise is to become a real person to the audience. Forest Whitaker as US Army Colonel Weber pays arguably the largest supporting role in the film, and though it is always nice to have such a talented actor as part of the miscellaneous cast, his character is nothing more than cardboard cutout of exactly what you would expect a military man dealing with alien contact would be. Ultimately, there are no particular missteps in terms of casting but it is very clear that Amy Adams is the shining light and guiding force of the production.
Overall, Arrival is an intelligent and engaging science-fiction picture that presents the trope and subsequent branching themes of ‘alien invasion’ and, in certain places, subverts them in order to force the audience to look at the topic in a way that maybe they never had before. The film does not hold your hand in terms of signposting the intricacies of the plot, but it also doesn’t intentionally confuse the viewer in a false attempt at being intellectual. If you enjoyed all of the sci-fi films I mentioned in the intro, then you are bound to enjoy this too. I can’t wait to see it again.