Arrival review: A modern masterpiece. It will never be forgotten. 5 stars.
Director - Denis Villeneuve
Cast - Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Rating - 5/5
Here’s an idea.
Wherever you may find yourself on the spectrum, there is no denying that the chances of us being alone in the universe are minuscule. Think of it this way: If it, the universe, is infinite, and if time is a concept that we can barely comprehend - the clumsy insects that we are - then we can hardly expect a human being to handle themself with dignity when (not if) confronted with an extraterrestrial visitor.
Anyway, the idea. Assuming of course that enough powerful people think this way, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that there exists - in some vault, away from even President-elect Trump - a list of people who have been selected to make first contact with the aliens. And if this list exists, the next logical step would be to assume that it has existed for a several years.
Now, do these chosen few, doubtless the crème de la crème of humanity, know that they’re on it? And if they do, how do they feel, knowing fully well that they’ll probably spend their entire lives being on standby for the biggest event in the history of our planet?
Dr Louise Banks, played in Denis Villeneuve’s new masterpiece by Amy Adams, certainly didn’t. The day the alien ships arrived, 12 of them, and parked themselves at seemingly random, unrelated locations on our planet, she was busy teaching a class on linguistics.
But it is this skill that soon attracts an unannounced Forest Whitaker to her doorstep in the dead of the night. He plays a colonel with the US Army, and recruits her to be the one to make first contact with the aliens - because unlike what Hollywood has taught us, situations like this would probably require a linguist and not Will Smith in a fighter jet.
Dr Banks is paired with Jeremy Renner’s astrophysicist, and together, they enter one of the alien ships once every 18 hours, when a doorway cyclically opens up.
In the ship, during these sessions, they come face to face (albeit with a screen separating them) with two mesmerizingly designed alien creatures. Are they military? Are they diplomats? Or are they just tourists? Why are they here? What is the purpose of their visit? Where are they from? When are they from? These are just a few of the questions Dr Banks must ask them.
But before she can do that, she must establish a method of communication. She must determine whether or not the aliens have a ‘language’ at all; and then, if they do, she must understand it. Every visit she pays them (they call the alien duo Abott and Costello, after the early-Hollywood comedians) is recorded, analysed, and studied by the best minds in the world – all over the world. But we never leave her side, even as chaos erupts on the TV screens, and governments argue over what the best way to handle the levitating ships is. It’s a bit like the great Jodie Foster movie Contact, but even more introspective.
Arrival, with its deceptively plain title, but decidedly lofty concepts, is unquestionably a modern masterpiece – a film made all the more uncommon for the fact that its director, Denis Villeneuve, seems to be making nothing but masterpieces of late.
It is with slight regret that I look back at his previous film Sicario – the first film that I ever reviewed – and wonder why I didn’t award it 5 stars. It has only matured with time. Arrival is even more breathtaking. It delivers, sometime around the hour-and-a-half mark, a blow so devastating, that you will find yourself gasping for breath for the rest of its duration, right up until the its final moments, when yet another new realisation will leave you in a numbing daze. As if you’re floating in space, being sucked into a wormhole; your mind, and your emotions, sucked dry from the monumental work of brilliance you’ve just experienced.
Together with his composer Johann Johansson, whose score has almost spiritual overtones, with its Tibetan horns and quiet chants of ‘Om’, and the painterly cinematography of Bradford Young, the best young DP working right now, Villeneuve, the master, has crafted his second-best film (his best movie remains Incendies), and certainly one of the most powerful you can expect to see this year.
It is an anti-war film on a cosmic scale, an intimate portrait of loss – and hope, and a powerful reminder that when we are together, we are better.
It’s dirty science-fiction - the best kind, in which grand themes are used to tell a personal, grounded story - the sort of film that is usually ignored at the awards, and by the public in general. Arrival is one of those rare movies in which every element, every moment, every note, comes together in glorious harmony.
Not since Midnight Special or Never Let Me Go has a science fiction film - or indeed, any film - been this terrific. Awarding it a bag-full of Oscars come February would be too puny a recognition, too inconsequential; it deserves to be shown in museums, to governments, in schools. Missing it should be outlawed.