As we get to the end of 20016, it was a huge relief to see Arrival, a science fiction film that is thoughtful, emotionally powerful, and built around interesting ideas rather than epic spectacle.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action blockbuster. I am delighted to live in an age of Marvel movies and the Star Wars resurgence. I could not be more excited about Rogue One if I tried.
But while hugely enjoyable, these spectacle films seldom push the genre forward or provide anything new of substance. Arrival, like Ex Machina and in a very different way Mad Max: Fury Road, does just that.
I’d like to be able to say that Arrival showed film-makers taking a risk with genuinely original science fiction, but that isn’t quite true. Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, it shows that the short story, more than the novel, is the right length for adaptation to a standalone feature film.
Amy Adams plays Louis Banks, a linguistics professor struggling with memories of a terrible loss. When alien spaceships arrive on Earth, she’s called upon to try to communicate with the new arrivals. Tensions are running high as humanity tries to assess whether the aliens are friend or threat, and as governments walk a line between cooperation and competition for access to new technology. Against this backdrop, Banks struggles with the most challenging assignment of her life – decoding the language of a species whose existence is radically different from our own.
Intellectually, this is a fascinating story, exploring the challenge of communication with aliens. Emotionally, it’s both devastating and uplifting, using the implications of its sci-fi premise to deliver some surprising and powerful beats. The visual and audio style match this tone perfectly.
The characters are all believable. Even when they act in ways most of us would condemn, their actions are totally understandable and real. The cast are generally excellent and Adams is wonderful. This is a huge contrast from my other favourite performance of hers, in The Muppet Movie. She handles the different style of story with aplomb.
I’m not going to say “if you watch one sci-fi movie this year, watch Arrival“. It’s far too late for that, and we should all be watching Rogue One. But however many popcorn blockbusters you chomp through in the next few months, try to see Arrival too. It brings a different sort of life to the genre, a range of ideas and styles that sci-fi needs, and above all it’s an amazing film.