‘The devil is in the detail’, so the popular idiom goes. What many may not know, however, is that this wasn’t always the phrase. Once upon a time, we said ‘God is in the detail’, but if history has taught us anything it’s that oftentimes an angel and a demon can be one and the same, depending on your point of view. It’s these subtleties, nuances and altogether smaller realities that can both connect and divide us that director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) confronts head-on with his cerebral science-fiction sensation, Arrival.
Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a leading linguistics expert who, with the arrival of twelve mysterious alien spaceships around the world, is enlisted to help the US military decipher their language, and determine their purpose on Earth. Aided by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker), Louise finds herself in a race against time, as fear of the aliens’ unknown intentions spreads across the world, and the clouds of war between both nations and species threaten to break.
There is much about Arrival that resonates long after the credits roll. Adams delivers a truly mesmerising performance, conveying Louise’s awesome intelligence, her wonderment at her historic undertaking and the sheer weight that comes to rest on her shoulders. Jóhann Jóhannson’s haunting score cuts to the very roots of the hairs on the back of your neck, pivotal to so many of the film’s greatest moments of atmosphere and tension-building, and even informing so much of the aliens’ character as we perceive them. Perhaps most of all, Villeneuve’s spectacular visualisation of the alien ‘Shells’, as the ships come to be called, is reminiscent of nothing less than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odysseymasterpiece, slowly tracking over the vessel’s vastness as if the camera itself is in awe, and the very design and presence of the ships comparable to Kubrick’s iconic monoliths. The fact that Villeneuve is able to maintain this sense of awe, of fear even, upon Louise and Ian’s meeting and continued interactions with the extra-terrestrials (dubbed ‘Abbot’ and ‘Costello’ by the boyishly-humoured Ian) speaks volumes as to the director’s ability to command truly visceral impulses in his audience.
It’s hard to talk about the experience of watching this film and not acknowledge recent events in the world, which make Arrival’s timing not so much ironic as sobering. “We’re a world with no single leader”, sighs Michael Stuhlberg’s sceptical US intelligence Agent Halpern (in what may be a minor scene, but much like language itself it’s often the smallest pieces that make the most impact). These are divisive times in which we live, and Arrival is by no means the first work of science-fiction to try and highlight the contrast between our own heavily conflicted and self-destructive species, and what at least appears to be a united alien alternative. But few works of this genre spring to mind that make so concerted an effort to address this issue, and so explicitly. “We need to make sure that they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool”, Louise insists. She may well be referring to the aliens in that instance, but it’s no less appropriate a lesson for our own species. Arrival is a film of captivating contemplation, a celebration of the possibilities of human collectivism whilst paying full respect to the value of our idiosyncrasies. In short, exactly the kind of story we need, now more than ever.
Final Score: 5/5