A terrific example of how to put the 'science' back into 'sci-fi' without compromising pace or action.
Seven years ago Dustin Hoffman, himself a former chemist, issued a stinging rebuke of the increasingly ‘dumb’ science fiction movies making their way onto our screens. Laziness was at the heart of his complaint, accusing writers of opting for meaningless techno-babble instead of taking the time to invent intelligent solutions to their characters’ scientific problems. Hoffman even went so far as to help sponsor the Science and Entertainment Exchange (an initiative of the National Academy of Sciences) to promote films deemed to respect scientific principles and debunk those which are unrealistic. It wasn’t that sci-fi movies couldn’t have action in them, he explained, they just needed to ensure the ‘sci’ remained the prevalent part.
Arrival, by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), is a film of which Hoffman would be proud. Beginning conventionally in the vein of an Independence Day or The Day The Earth Stood Still, twelve mysterious alien spacecraft suddenly ‘arrive’ and make camp in various locations around the world, but then sit curiously idle as the humans debate their origin and intent. Rather than dialling up the action, however, Arrival instead veers much more towards the themes of Sphere (which starred Hoffman) or Contact, in that the world’s scientists - not soldiers - form the core team around which the story revolves.
Fronting the US team are Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), America’s foremost linguistics expert, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist. Their goal is singular, yet phenomenally complex: figure out how to communicate with the aliens and convey one simple, critical question: “What is your purpose here on earth”? What follows is a fascinating study in language, history and non-verbal communication, where variables and complexities in even the most rudimentary grammatical expressions become seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Add to that the paranoia of military and CIA liaisons (Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg) whose focus rarely extends beyond ‘invasion’, along with the vicissitudes of international diplomacy (wherein ’sharing and cooperation’ are, to some, hallmarks of weakness), and you find in Arrival an intensely engaging, cerebral and often gripping sci-fi thriller.
Based on the cult novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival blends sumptuous cinematography with weighty abstractions that, for the most part, land with an assured touch. Louise’s increasing ‘flashbacks' raise questions about time and the human preoccupation with our linear perception of it, and only rarely does the script indulge in the kind of corny musings traditionally found in freshman philosophy essays. Adams’s performance is the clear standout, around which her supporting cast plays it with impressive reserve for a story of such scale, while the score by Jóhann Jóhannsson shifts effortlessly between beautiful and bombastic. Intelligent and retrained, Arrival is a welcome addition to the sci-fi canon and a film that stays with you long after the credits.