We’ve all seen ENOUGH films to know that when aliens eventually come to Earth, they’ll do so for one of two reasons: they’ll either be set on blowing us to bits, starting with our most famous landmarks, or if they’re cute ones, they’ll be intent on befriending our most introverted children. Whichever their plan, it’s usually clear within minutes. Not so in Arrival. This astonishingly beautiful new film from Denis Villeneuve is all about what happens when communication is an apparent impossibility.
As the film begins, alien ships have arrived in 12 locations across the globe. They’re trying to give us a message, but we don’t speak their language and they don’t speak ours. Until someone figures out what they’re trying to say, they’re simultaneously friend and foe. It’s Schrödinger’s Invasion. Louise (Amy Adams, movingly eloquent in a part that asks more silence of her than speech), a translator who’s grieving the death of her daughter, is persuaded to attempt to speak to the aliens, with the help of a mathematician, Ian (Jeremy Renner). The aliens have no mouths, nor even faces, and don’t produce anything we’d recognise as writing, so where to start? The film becomes about how you go about understanding someone when they’re giving nothing away, and of course, it’s as much about decoding human nature as extra-terrestrial.
Anyone hoping for an action blockbuster will be disappointed. This is an epic of quiet moments. The visual scale is large, but the ideas are larger. Villeneuve continues a faultless run – his last three films were Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. He has a supreme ability to smooth out the complex. There’s a lot here that should be difficult to wrap your head around, but he holds our hand while also trusting us to assemble most of the puzzle. There are obvious comparisons here to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which struggled to keep a grip on its biggest thoughts. Arrival doesn’t. It makes the incredibly complicated emotionally simple. It makes you asks questions not just about what’s out there, but what’s in us.