Arrival review: “Impressive, thoughtful and cerebral”

Forget Independence Day bluster, communication is the key to the Earth's survival as Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner make contact

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★★★★

Arrival is a film about communication. The story revolves around the sudden appearance of 12 mysterious spacecrafts, but this isn’t the kind of movie where cities are destroyed while mankind battles against an alien invasion. Instead, it is a grounded, intimate sci-fi drama that follows a small team of experts as they try to communicate with the creatures inside the vessels.

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The main character is Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguistics professor who is haunted by a death in the family. At the beginning of the film, Louise is about to give a lecture when she is faced with breaking news that can’t be ignored – a dozen alien spaceships have positioned themselves in various countries around the world. Recruited by the American military, she is transported to a large field in Montana, where the nearest ship is hovering above the ground.

Where have these aliens come from? Why are they here? The military leaders want answers to these questions, and they want them fast, due to the fact that certain nations might be planning to declare war on the visitors at any moment. In order to avoid this chaos, Louise is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and the two of them are tasked with finding a way to understand what the aliens are saying.

As they enter the ship for the first time, Louise and Ian are lifted into a vertical, gravity-altering shaft at the base of the vessel. This sequence might just be the high point of the entire film. You know what the characters are feeling – awe, disbelief, apprehension – and you feel as though you are right there with them, preparing to come face to face with a couple of extraterrestrials.

Happily, the aliens don’t look silly, and the film doesn’t suffer when they appear. We see them on a number of occasions, but they remain in a mist-filled chamber on the other side of a transparent, floor-to-ceiling panel. As a result, the aliens retain an air of mystery, and they aren’t detrimental to the film’s sense of reality.

At this point, it’s worth noting that Arrival has little in the way of action. Director Denis Villeneuve (who’s now filming the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner) allows the story to unfold in a gradual, unhurried manner, focusing on Louise and Ian’s attempts to decipher the inky, circular symbols that the aliens use to communicate. Importantly, this is far more interesting than it might sound, thanks in part to a reliably well-judged performance from Adams.

In truth, the final act isn’t as strong as the rest of the film, with the story building towards a game-changing development that might be hard to swallow for some viewers. For the most part, though, Arrival is an impressive piece of work, and it deserves the praise that it has been receiving. If you like thoughtful, cerebral sci-fi films that are driven by ideas, you will be in for a treat. 

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Arrival is released in cinemas on Thursday 10 November