from tiff: ‘arrival’ is a nuanced and beguiling sci-fi masterpiece

There’s something sort of ominous about the way the alien spaceships in ‘Arrival’ simply hover over earth in relative silence. Perhaps, after years of directors choosing to depict unknown entities blasting the living daylights out of our landscapes, it’s even more intimidating to see them sit still and do nothing as we wait for their unpredictable reaction. That is, in a way, what makes Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the widely acclaimed Sicario so special. We’ve come to expect our science fiction films to have grandiose set pieces and stunning CGI, while Arrival burrows itself under your skin by swapping out violence in favour of conversation.

Here, Amy Adams stars as Dr Louise Banks, a college lecturer and linguist who specialises in deciphering dialogue for the US government. When 12 spaceships appear on separate continents, each one carrying ‘heptapods’  (spider/octopus crossovers with seven, smog-emitting legs), the government leaves it up to Louise to understand why they’ve come to visit earth. Her conversations with the creatures, alongside her cynical, scientist colleague Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, begin to haunt her, prompting upsetting visions of her past to flood back. Amy Adam’s work rarely demands the kind of earsplitting attention that winds up bringing home statuettes come awards season. Instead, she focuses on doing the job at hand with a kind of modest brilliance, captivating with her expression and style of delivering dialogue. Renner, alongside a number of wonderfully minor male co-stars, are overshadowed by the film’s exquisite female lead.

Arrival plays out with a unique kind of delicacy, unfolding first as a family drama before broadening its horizons to become a masterful story of what happens when our immediate safety is questioned and the methods we use to salvage it. Villeneuve keeps his distance from science fiction hyperboles to give the film a kind of intimacy that, at times, reminded us of both Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ and Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’. Cinematographer Bradford Young uses his experience on David Lowery’s blisteringly beautiful Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to merge his familiar, sweeping presentations of nature and humanity with a dark, granite-filled vision of the future.

The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who has previously penned the script to the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, manages to come into his own here. Using a short story by Ted Chiang entitled “Story of Your Life” as his base, he has produced a fully fledged, muscular script that Villeneuve beautifully realises on film. The haunting, almost foreboding score by the ever brilliant Jóhan Jóhannsson only adds to it, and it reminds us how brilliant a job this duo could do when crafting the Blade Runner sequel that’s due to land next Autumn.

In a time when Hollywood is churning out a series of headstrong heroines that can kick ass, Denis Villeneuve reminds us of how rousing intelligent conversation alone can really be. By blending sobering reality with atmospheric fiction, Arrival acts as the Québecois auteur’s most entrancing, evocative and perceptive work to date.

★★★★★

Arrival opens in UK cinemas on November 11th 2016

This review is part of our coverage of the Toronto Film Festival 2016