Film Review: Arrival

Science fiction isn’t a genre that has always been concerned with human emotion and relationships, with otherworldly spectacle traditionally placed at the forefront of these films. However, Arrival is the latest in a new generation of sci-fi films that intertwine emotion, human struggles and relationships with complex ideas and special effects. Another recent film to have achieved this balance is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which told a very human story against the grandiose notions of space travel, the concept of time and saving the human race. In Arrival, Amy Adams stars as brilliant linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who is recruited by the military to translate the language of extraterrestrial visitors who have shown up on Earth, parking their spaceships in twelve random locations across the globe. People around the world panic and life descends into chaos before much has even happened, a commentary on how the human race is so quick to panic, become desperate, how the media fuels fear, how rash the military and government can be to jump to violence, and how much is withheld from the public, which can only increase speculation and fear.

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Directed by Dennis Villeneuve, who gave us last year’s taught crime thriller Sicario, starring Emily Blunt, Arrival follows another engaging and complex female lead with Louise. Like Blunt’s role before her, she is also this film’s voice of reason, reflecting the natural human reactions of confusion and fear in the face of an extremely daunting situation. This is certainly refreshing in a genre that often sidelines complex emotion in favour of a cold, calculated calm, a highly unlikely response when facing the possibility of alien invasion, experts or not. Louise isn’t military trained, nor is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who throws up after their first encounter with the visiting aliens. Even the military eventually fail to remain calm, becoming brash and succumbing to panic. Furthermore, Villeneuve has given us another great female lead in what is still a male dominated genre.

However, part of Louise’s characterisation follows on from a science-fiction trope that polarises the genders, viewing women as fundamentally linked to Earth, the body, reproduction, motherhood – essentially ‘Mother Nature’ – whereas men are the explorers and adventurers who are free to roam and explore outer space. In contrast, in many science-fiction stories, a female character’s involvement is seen as unnatural and that they have abandoned their duty – so to speak – on Earth, or their involvement will be justified by them having lost their child, such as with Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity, which allows them to leave. They can’t just be a woman in space, they have to be over-explained in a way a male character does not; not simply portrayed as a professional in their field, their characterisation and feelings have to be gendered; they can’t just be relatable human beings regardless of gender, instead it is as if they have to be mothers in order to be humanised. While Arrival does not take place in space, Louise has lost her daughter, and spends much of the film reflecting on her child’s life and her grief. At first it seems as though the film might be placing her within this tired trope, however, this loss actually expands her characterisation, adding more depth and complexity, and illustrates the rich inner life of her character. It’s also natural that one would reflect on their family – or lack of – in a time of uncertainty and potential threat. Furthermore, her motherhood is crucial to the film’s amazing twist near the end.

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‘Arrival’ features eerie scenes with the aliens, showcasing spectacular special affects that never seem overdone. There’s a real sense of apprehension, fear and the unknown each time the team, headed by Louise, enter the giant spaceship to communicate with Earth’s visitors. These scenes are highly thrilling, both awe-inspiring and skin crawling, fascinating and chilling. The film also explores language, communication, translation, interpretation, and of course, time and space. Louise struggles with flashbacks to life with her daughter before she passed away, seeming to be triggered by certain experiences with the aliens, and proving fundamental to her task. Like ‘Interstellar,’ this is a heartfelt and emotional film, descriptors once alien to the science-fiction genre. Sometimes it is a bit sentimental, but this is counterbalanced with the fantastic twist and intelligent ideas that the film explores. This is a highly gripping, exciting film that will captivate you and remain compelling throughout. It’s a film with a huge, mind-blowing twist, but everything comes together so well that it’s not a struggle to keep up with the concepts, nor does the film over explain or underestimate its audience. The twist near the end is so clever and interesting that it elevates an already great sci-fi to become a stellar, fascinating piece of cinema, and the latest instalment in a new style of very human sci-fi.

Watch the trailer for ‘Arrival’ below:

‘Arrival’ is currently in cinemas across the UK.