If extraterrestrials suddenly turned up on Earth, how would we respond? With awe, wonder and humility? Or with fear, suspicion and hostility? Would first contact play out as imagined by Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or with the gung-ho bluster of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day? Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent and humane sci-fi drama Arrival definitely flies the flag for the former camp.
Amy Adams’ linguist heroine Louise Banks sets the movie’s tone. Curious and cautious, open-minded and intellectually rigorous, she is the last person to do anything knee-jerk. Which, as things turn out after the film’s extraterrestrials arrive, is a very good thing.
The aliens announce their presence with the appearance in the skies of 12 spacecraft at different locations around Earth. Grey ovoid monoliths, the craft hover above the ground, impervious and inscrutable. Why are they here? What do they want? These are the questions Louise is tasked with discovering after Forest Whitaker’s gruff, brisk US army intelligence colonel conscripts her into the team of experts gathered at the site in Montana of one of the craft.
It’s best that your encounter with the mysterious aliens be as surprising as that of Louise and her scientist colleague Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. Suffice to say that Louise’s linguistic skills and openness become paramount after she and her colleagues, togged out in cumbersome orange hazmat suits, make contact with the aliens, and that Villeneuve accompanies their attempts at communication with awesome images and challenging concepts. The film’s sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s striking score, replete with drones, rumbles and whale-like song, add to the film’s haunting strangeness.
Of course, not everyone on screen is as receptive to the other as is Louise. The arrival of the aliens prompts looting and panic buying of firearms across America. Trumpist shock-jocks advocate a show of force. The Chinese and other nations refuse to share information. And the US military gets dangerously jumpy. With Earth hovering on the brink of disaster, Villeneuve effectively ramps up the tension, if not to the brutal degree of his previous film, Sicario. But it his film’s quieter moments, and the tremulous resolve and fierce intelligence of Adams’ Louise that will remain with you.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 116 mins. Director Denis Villeneuve
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