It’s very rare for a sci-fi film to get Oscar nominations outside of the technical categories, so it’s truly exceptional that Arrival scored eight of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. It may have won just one Academy Award – Best Achievement in Sound Editing – but it’s still highly unusual.
In the movie, the world is shocked when 12 mysterious ovoid spaceships arrive at various points around the planet, hanging in the sky. One of them is over American soil, so the government decides it needs to know what’s going on. Inside the ship are two aliens – which look like a cross between trees and octopuses – but there’s no way to communicate with them.
They call in a team, including linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to try to work out how to talk to the visitors to find out why they’re there. This proves complex, with Louise needing to figure out both how the creatures communicate and how their written language works. This is complicated by the fact that the other ships are in other countries, and while initially the nations work together, as fear grows over what the aliens’ intentions are, things begins to break down.
As Louise gets closer to some answers, she also has to make some decisions about the death of her daughter.
Arrival is an intriguing and unusual major Hollywood movie, which is more interested in ideas and science than non-stop action. It certainly builds tension and excitement, but does it more through character and concepts than action and explosions. That’s not to say there aren’t some more traditional story elements – much of which involves Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg being stock G-men who want answers and distrusts everything – but the central spine of the movie is the difficulty of communication, and how time and memory work.
The thing that really helps it stands out is the narrative turnaround it does towards the end, which makes you re-evaluate what you’ve just seen. Without it, it would be a good film, but probably not one that would have troubled the Oscar voters. With it, it becomes far more interesting and thought provoking, and perhaps most smartly, the way the ‘twist’ works, actually works thematically for what it’s talking about, so doesn’t come across a gimmicky or contrived. It does take a little mental gymnastics to work out exactly what it’s talking about, but it’s good.
It also looks great, with lots of time spent of the look of the aliens, the spaceships and the spaces the interactions take place in. The way it’s filmed helps add to the tension, to create something that slowly pulls you further and further in, as it presents more and more fascinating questions. It helps too that Amy Adams puts in a great performance in a role that it absolutely central to the movie’s success.
Those interested in the ideas and science, will be pleased to hear that the special features include some featurettes involving scientists and the filmmakers talking about the concepts and how they work. That includes things such as the need to create a particular form of language for the movie, and how the human mind is just our way of looking at the universe and how other forms of life could see things in vastly different ways.
Overall Verdict: An intriguing and thought-provoking movie, that breaks the mould of sci-fi by not needing an endless parade of action, or indeed the assumption that aliens will automatically want to kill us all.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac