If alien invasion movies exist on a spectrum where, say, “Independence Day” is the median point and down one end of the spectrum you have the likes of “Battleship” and “Independence Day: Resurgence”, “Arrival” finds its place at the opposite end of the scale.
When twelve alien objects appear on Earth simultaneously, the various governments of the world mobilise their military and scientific resources to find out why they are here. As tensions begin to rise, the international consensus begins to break down and the world teeters on the brink of war.
Although it heavily involves the military, “Arrival” avoids the usual bombast and machismo that tends to be the hallmark of global alien invasion movies in favour of a thoughtful, intelligent approach to the situation, telling a story of the importance of understanding rather than overreacting and the power and importance of language and communication. It has shades of “Contact” and “Interstellar” but handles its central metaphysical conceits far better than either of them.
There’s a purity and lightness to Denis Villeneuve’s latest film that’s almost a photographic negative of the brooding, darkly sterile intensity of his previous film “Sicario”. For a film that feels epic in scope and vast in its storytelling, it’s surprisingly economical in its execution. From the 1990s Athena poster-esque floating pebble alien ships to their smoky coffee mug stain language, there’s a frugality at play that sharpens and enhances the story, placing the drama and dilemma front and centre while the effects work seeps into the background where it belongs.
Anchoring everything is a wonderfully textured performance from Amy Adams providing strength, vulnerability and depth to a role that could easily have been overly mawkish. Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist has little to do apart from follow along in Adams’ wake as she puts linguistics and symbology to use in a way that would make Robert Langdon hang up his Mickey Mouse watch for good but he’s at least on board with the contemplative tone of the movie. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have clued in Forest Whitaker who delivers yet another oddly off-key performance, all wandering accent and whispery voiced belligerence that feels awkward and out of place.
There’s a topical subtext in a story that pitches pleas for understanding, tolerance and cooperation against a hawkish background of military aggression and fear of others but it loses its edge in emotional overindulgence.
I wasn’t bowled over by “Sicario” because it felt too detached, too emotionless and here it almost feels like Villeneuve has overcompensated, overegging this intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi tale with an abundance of sentimentality which occasionally feels forced inorganically to the story.
Despite this, “Arrival” is still a bold, beautiful and refreshingly different film that isn’t afraid to pose some pretty big philosophical questions and answer them too.