Why do we go to the cinema? Those of an overtly cynical nature will have already answered this question, with a slightly mocking tone, no doubt, by stating that we go to the cinema to watch a film. It is certainly true that the most basic pleasure that can be gained from entering the darkened auditorium of your local cinema is the act of watching, but, as everyone knows, the biggest source of pleasure is gained from a film that you do not simply watch, but that you experience. Arrival is one of those films.
From a world beyond the stars comes a group of alien crafts that settle at seemingly random locations across the globe, and it is up to Language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams, who is the star of two fantastic films currently in cinemas, this and Nocturnal Animals) and Mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the aliens language in order to find out their intentions for our planet. It would be generous to suggest that this is an original plot, in fact it is probably the most repeated story-line in the history of the sci-fi genre, but Arrival sets itself apart from these films by avoiding the typical, boring story of countless soldiers being gunned down by slimy creatures from another planet, and instead focuses on a story about the power of language, it’s ability to separate us as a united species, and the nature of time in a film that becomes surprisingly emotional as the narrative threads start to come together.
On a technical level the film is simply breathtaking. The sound design is especially captivating during the sequences in which our leading characters begin their ascension into the heart of the mysterious pods that have arrived on our planet. These scenes are accompanied by an oppressive drone that never allows the audience to settle or relax, but at the same time does not distract from the impressive visuals of the interiors of the ship. Also the design of the creatures is brilliant, clearly inspired by the aliens from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but constantly shrouded in a deep fog that maintains the air of mystery that surrounds them.
In less confident hands this tale of the first encounter between Mankind and creatures from another planet could have descended into another mindless action film, but director Denis Villeneuve has instead created a sci-fi masterpiece that asks far more interesting questions than which gun is the best weapon for exterminating aliens. Instead the film has heavy themes of the nature of loss, the biblical Tower of Babel and the scattering of the languages of the human race, but most importantly it is a tale of our most basic function for interaction with each other. I began this review with a question, and feel i should end it by answering that question. Why do we go to the cinema? We go for films like Arrival.