Look up to the skies! What’s that approaching? It’s Arrival, the new alien contact movie from Denis Villeneuve, the director of Enemy and Sicario – but don’t let that put you off. Amy Adams stars as Dr Louise Banks, an expert linguist recruited to help make contact with the mysterious inhabitants of pods that have landed around the world.
Arrival is a sci-fi film that’s not afraid to push its ideas to the fore and let them guide the story. Focusing on Louise’s communication with the mysterious creatures, the film’s driving force is purely to find an answer to the question “Why are they here?”.
It’s refreshing that it allows this one question to form the focal point of the film without the need for fancy spaceships or explosions. It’s not afraid to let its aliens be aliens, in terms of appearance and communication, but also motivation, which is why the question of ‘why’ is so intriguing. This is pure, undiluted sci-fi, and the best alien invasion movie since District 9.
Where some alien contact films assume a level of common understanding, Arrival is a realistic attempt to answer the question of how exactly you’d go about communicating with something which lacks even the most basic common understanding. Adams is excellent in the lead role, as the scientist with a loosely sketched backstory which allows us to fill in the gaps.
The lack of loud noises and action won’t suit everyone, since it plays it pretty seriously throughout. You probably need to be at least somewhat interested in the subject matter to enjoy this. But if you are the level of substance on offer is enough to make it engaging throughout. It’s everything the recent and inexplicably lauded Midnight Special wasn’t. Where that film failed to distinguish between being thought-provoking and just throwing some random events at the screen (a trap Villneuve’s own Enemy fell into), Arrival provides just enough to keep us guessing.
Add to this some stunning cinematography and an atmosphere you can cut with a knife and you have a return to form for the genre. In the early 2010s there was a run of superb mainstream sci-fi films – the likes of Source Code, Looper, Inception and Rise of the Planet of the Apes – let’s hope this latest offering marks the arrival of a new wave of serious mainstream sci-fi.