Slow, Heartfelt & Powerful – Arrival isn’t your average Sci-Fi movie

When thinking about Science Fiction movies, the images that usually come to mind are aliens decimating cities, one or a group of individuals rushing around corridors frantically trying to come up with ways of destroying the aliens and the best way to deal with aliens is to blow them up. Arrival is a different kind of Sci-Fi movie. And boy is that a good thing.

Arrival is a clever movie that requires the audience to really concentrate. It’s not a case of Humans good, Aliens bad. Or vice versa. Instead the plot focuses on knowledge and establishing relationships between species, and how each separate nation deals with UFOs landing in their respective lands. The movie features twelve ships, all of which land in various locations across the globe but not in conventional places. In a similar move to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, where the spaceship landed in Johannesburg. Devonshire, England, Siberia, Russia. Sudan, Venezuela, Australia. These aren’t ‘conventional’ landing sites. Normally the spaceship hovers off New York or Washington or London and obliterates a building. But to highlight Arrival‘s difference from core Science-Fiction films, they simply hover in their locations. Rather than a famous American landmark getting the same treatment the Whitehouse did in Independence Day (1996), it mysteriously hovers over a random field in Montana. This is a very interesting and positive point in the movie as it makes the audience question why they landed where they did.

The ‘first contact’ scene was probably one of the most intense sequences in a film I have ever witnessed

The movie makes the audience ask a lot of questions. The movie opens with our protagonist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor giving birth to her child and we see her grow up a little and her interactions with her mother, only for her to die of what we assume is cancer. We engage with this character emotionally before the movie has even begun. We get a level of understanding that Louise is a mother, she is or has been married as the camera at one point lingers on her wedding ring and we see her motivations as a parent – It’s made clear she’s a single mother and that she’s a strong-willed character despite losing her daughter we learn that she is a college professor as well as working for the government translating hostage videos from insurgents. We learn everything about the main character in the opening few minutes, rather than see any aliens or the destruction of a city early on. We as an audience know the aliens are coming, but the characters don’t and the long and agonizing wait for them is actually refreshing from a movie of this kind.

The wait for the aliens is vital for the pace of this movie. It sets how long each problem will take to solve. The aliens take ages to arrive. The scientists take ages to decipher their language and so on. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was one of the earliest big budget, big screen science fiction movies. This was a slow-paced Sci-Fi movie that focused on the science, had a lot of people sitting around and no big action scenes. Arrival is in the same category of style. There are no explosions, fight scenes and no aliens being punched in the face followed by a memorable one liner. The movie focuses on character development and emotions than big action set pieces. We learn of the alien’s arrival (pun intended) when Louise turns on the TV when her classes mobile phones and laptops and iPads keep going off and we see the ‘invasion’ through her eyes on the screen rather than some grand entrance. It’s a sort of personal connection as we see the spaceships arrive at the same time as her and we both have no idea of what’s going on which is actually quite intriguing as you feel like you’re in the movie with her.

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Everybody’s least favourite Avenger, Jeremy Renner stars as Louise’s love interest Ian Donnelly.

This movie uses the senses more than any movie I have witnessed for a long time. Upon entering the ship, the camera lingers on Louise’s risen hand as she touches the spaceship. The director has deliberately opted to linger on this as the cherry picker that is lifting them into the spaceship moves along to the entrance hole. The spaceship is alien to her and to us and by touching it, it shows she’s making sure it’s real which shows her curiosity, rather than just “there’s a spaceship, lets blow it up ahhhh.” The sense of volume is also apparent in this film. Louise lives in a house in the middle of nowhere and is used to quite environments and when a military helicopter lands in the middle of the night at her house the sound was immense. I watched this film in a standard 2D cinema and I thought to myself “Christ that’s loud, what would it have been like in IMAX.” The aliens are massive and the noise they make really resonates with you as their sounds are loud and booming, matching their size and shape.

One thing that I really enjoyed about this movie was that the aliens were not human life. Many Science-Fiction films focus on the aliens looking humanoid. Personally, I think this ruins the element of fiction as it makes it more believable. The aliens in Arrival looked like a cross between Gallaxhar from Monsters vs Aliens (2009) and the octopus from the opening musical title of the movie SPECTRE (2015). What made it even more believable as a Science-Fiction film is that they didn’t speak English or any human languages. The premise of the movie is simply scientists learning their language for the entire film just to ask why they are here and I think that’s more fascinating than some giant space battle. This film really explores the curiosity of humans wanting to know more about the world around them, when in actual fact we know nothing at all. The aliens may not have even been aliens. No character calls them this until half way through the movie, Louise asks “why is no one calling them aliens?” The spaceships themselves were again continuing Arrival‘s non-conventional style story telling by having them look like pebbles rather than big bulky metal objects. At the end when they fly away, the ships don’t even do that. They simply evaporate and disappear, making you question whether they were aliens or even existed at all.

The movie really focuses on how each country reacts to aliens and their landings. China and Russia are hostile. America are a mixture of hot heads and scientists and other smaller countries copy the superpowers because they’re inferior. The whole final act revolves around China and Russia delivering an ultimatum to the aliens or they’ll blow them up. I love that the movie’s writer wrote the countries as accurately as possible as it’s highly likely that they would react in similar ways to such an event. Some American solders try to blow up the Montana ship and this is interesting as it shows that different people react in different ways. Although one criticism I have about that segment is that the American solders that plant the bomb, are depicted as Southern American “Yee-haw” cowboy types and that seems like an entirely unfair stereotype which really shouldn’t be present in a thinking Science-Fiction film.

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The on-screen couple

The film’s premise is that the aliens come to earth to gift the humans a ‘weapon.’ The weapon turns out to be a tool, as they mention that the two words are often uncomprehended in many languages. The tool is that time is non-linear. It’s very scientific mumbo-jumbo based and fits well in this movie. But what makes it more intriguing is that the entire movie runs along non-linear time. The scenes at the start of Louise with her daughter are actually after the events of the aliens and that by learning to read the Heptopod’s (the aliens) language, humans can see into the future, sort of. The movie does carry a message for humanity as every Tom, Dick and Harry movie does these days, this one that humanity is sick in the future so giving you this now will save you then. This nods towards global warming or a disease as they say “in the future, humanity is sick.” I normally roll my eyes at stuff like this in movies, especially big Hollywood productions that don’t need messages, but this in no way felt tacked on and felt relevant to the plot.

Not since the movie Moon (2009) have I come out of the cinema and wanted to praise to the high heavens about an amazing non-action filled Sci-Fi movie.

The actors performed well in the movie. One nit-pick I have to include here though is the inclusion of Jeremy Renner. I felt it was an odd choice casting everyone’s least favourite Avenger. At the moment he seems to be one of those actors who are shoe horned into movies just because of the name. I thought his performance was competent and good enough and that he handed the scientific lingo very well. However, I have a massive problem with Hollywood chucking their ‘flavour of the month’ actors in every movie and sadly that was the case with Jeremy Renner. Conversely, Amy Adams was a dream to watch on-screen.  Her character didn’t feel forced. She actually cared for the plot, rather than just following the script. Her performance was excellent and really outshone the other actors.

The alien language seemed an interesting premise in the movie. The aliens themselves are seven legged creatures, that look similar to Octopi. I recently read an article suggesting that octopi are actually aliens, so seeing this in the movie was actually a nice touch. The fact that the creature’s method of written communication is spurting ink really emphasized their octopus-like attributes. After some research, it seems that it was actually a plausible method of communication. The makers of the movie consulted with real linguists on set and this really showed as the audience really believed that alien language could be understood. I myself even noticed one or two squiggles and made a connection to what they are. In a matter of months, I’ll be writing fluent Heptopod.

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An example of Heptopod language.

The ‘first contact’ scene was probably one of the most intense sequences in a film I have ever witnessed. The aliens were not shown on purpose in any marketing material or posters and that really added tension to meeting them for the first time. The audience have no idea what they look like and it really adds to the tension. The characters have to rise up into the ship via cherry picker and the slowness of the lift builds anticipation. The screen almost oozes with tension. The director made the characters walk vertically to make the scene longer and the scientists are even scared to enter, making the audience just as nervous about impending alien contact. It may not have been a horror film, but this was one of the scariest scenes I have seen in a non-horror movie in a long while. I would like to see story telling like this in the upcoming Alien: Covenant movie.

Arrival is a slow-paced gem of a science fiction movie. Not since the movie Moon (2009) have I come out of the cinema and wanted to praise to the high heavens about an amazing non-action filled Sci-Fi movie.  This movie is intelligent and well-acted. It can be confusing at times, all the non-linear time travel talk can be mind-boggling at times, but once you understand it, it makes the movie so worth watching. You will not enjoy this movie if you like action packed films. There are two types of Sci-Fi. There is Star Trek: The Motion Picture and There’s Star Trek…the Star Trek (2009). One is slow, thought-provoking and intelligent. The other is a hyper-charged Michael Bay movie in space. But don’t knock this film just because there aren’t any explosions in it.

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Would I recommend this film? Yes. It’s intelligent, beautifully shot and rendered. It’s a very long film at a slow pace but don’t be put off by this. Go and enjoy some slow Sci-Fi for once.

 

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