By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
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After entertaining and invigorating audiences in equal measure with the superb Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve does the same again with Arrival, a sci-fi drama that has more on its mind than merely delivering superficial, effects-driven thrills. With J.J. Abrams seemingly cornering the market on big screen science fiction (and to a lesser extent, Joss Whedon), it is refreshing to see an alternate, more thoughtful point of view come our way.

Oscar nominee Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a highly respected linguist who leads a solitary, work-obsessed existence. One morning, while about to start an almost-empty university class, Banks discovers via news reports that twelve massive objects have touched down at various locations around the globe, and rumours are already pointing towards alien contact.

The bewildered professor is soon visited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who wants Banks to decipher the sounds emitted by the beings the military have encountered on one particular ship, stationed in the U.S. state of Montana. Along with mathematical scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Banks is about to begin a journey that will test her beliefs on time, consciousness, and the human race’s very existence. Time is of the essence, as this unprecedented meeting could spark global friction and nuclear confrontation.

Like Villeneuve’s previous films, what’s immediately striking is the film-maker’s patient overview of the material. Where someone like Zack Snyder, Michael Bay, or J.J. Abrams would be pushing overblown set-pieces towards you at an early stage, Villeneuve wants the audience to soak up the setting and the people who populate it, establishing a vivid framework that can be played with when obstacles are introduced and tension increased. It also allows the cast room to move, and breath genuine life into their roles. It’s an approach that has frequently worked for the French-Canadian, from his earlier, compact efforts such as August 32nd On Earth (1998), Maelstrom (2000), and Polytechnique (2009), to his more expansive films like Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), and of course Sicario.

While many modern film-makers are admittedly proficient on a technical level, Villeneuve uses this dazzling technology to dig deeper into the story he’s telling, providing imagery that is as powerful as any painting. In fact, the way Banks ponders her place in the universe is reminiscent of Terrence Malick, with devices such as flashback and narration adding to that ethereal feel experienced in films such as Tree Of Life and Knight of Cups. Kudos goes to the entire crew, who have crafted Arrival to visual and aural perfection.

All of the performances are finely tuned, committing fully to a script that sometimes requires a leap of faith. Adams (Doubt / The Fighter) just continues to impress, but anyone who can survive disasters such as Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman with their reputation fully intact must have talent to burn. Renner (The Town / Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) offers strong support, and even Academy Award winner Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland / Rogue One), who can mercilessly chew the scenery, is effectively low-key.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on a Philip K. Dick-type short story by Ted Chiang), smartly fuses ideas, themes, and fears from a number of classic science fiction films from different eras. Notable influences come from Robert Wise’s 1951 masterpiece The Day The Earth Stood Still; Jack Arnold’s under-rated It Came From Outer Space (1953); Steven Spielberg’s wonderful Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977); Stanley Kubrick’s utterly unique 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and its worthy 1984 sequel, 2010 (helmed by Peter Hyams); James Cameron’s blend of the intimate and interstellar with The Abyss (1989); and Robert Zemeckis’ examination of alien communication in Contact (1997).

Arrival is the kind of film that is starting to become rare in Hollywood, one that satisfies the mind as well as the senses. With such a contemplative, cinematic offering like this, pressure builds even more now for Denis Villeneuve, whose next feature will be the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic Blade Runner. One feels that the project is in good hands.

Rating: 4/5

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