Arrival review: plausible and intriguing - one of the year's best releases

Denis Villeneuve’s stunning follow-up to Sicario sees Amy Adams' damaged linguist trying to reach understanding with visiting aliens

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Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cert: 12A
Genre: Sci-Fi
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nathaly Thibault, Mark O’Brien
Running Time: 1 hr 56 mins

Wittgenstein once argued that: “if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.” The point is that, with so few shared experiences between person and big cat, language would be insufficient to bridge the incomprehension. Denis Villeneuve’s wonderful new film, derived from a knotty story by Ted Chiang, argues that humans might manage an even more implausible feat.

Her face crumpled in permanent conflict between sorrow and confusion, Amy Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, an academic tasked with interpreting the language of a visiting alien species.

Nothing could prepare us for the oddness of such an encounter. But Arrival makes a darn good attempt. Louise's subjects pass messages via circular patterns whose radial symmetry echoes the seven-pronged anatomy of the beasts themselves. It is to Villeneuve's credit that those connections are among many subtexts that are not addressed explicitly. This is a film about interpretation that, itself, rewards careful listening and creative translation.

It is a sad story. In the opening scenes, we learn how Louise lost her child to cancer and then withdrew into unfulfilled solitude. (Villeneuve allows her a pathetically fallacious view over damp countryside to emphasise the emotional retreat.) When the military man in charge (Forest Whitaker) invites her to join the team investigating the visitation, Louise is, thus, unencumbered by any emotional or household responsibilities. She barely cares if the visitors annihilate or abduct her.


We get ahead of ourselves. As he has shown recently in Sicario and Enemy, Villeneuve has a gift for revealing huge events through canny hints. Louise arrives one morning to find the lecture theatre deserted. She looks only slightly puzzled. Then alerts start to beep on the remaining students' phones. Somebody asks her to turn on a news channel. The creatures have arrived silently and beautifully.

Arrival creates a series of flattened grey ellipsoids – huge sections of a Terry's Chocolate Orange – suspended over key sites throughout the planet. (No doubt they obey the laws of feng shui rigorously.) The authorities are wary of attack, but, siding with Louise's academic sobriety, audiences will assume that, as in stories by Arthur C Clarke and The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens have come to offer us assistance, if we are wise enough to accept. Perhaps, like the naive fools in Mars Attacks!, we are being led astray by our own good nature.

Villeneuve holds back on revealing his creatures. We will, therefore, not spoil the surprise by discussing their appearance in detail. It is, however, worth noting that the designers fail to invent any startling new shapes or dynamics. It remains impossible to imagine the unimaginable.

Happily, the intricacies of Louise’s linguistic researches remain plausible and intriguing throughout. As they progress, the film develops an emotional undercurrent that becomes properly overwhelming in the final reel.

Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brilliantly insidious score – alive with mournful strings and sharp exhalations – beats an alien pulse while the private is stirred in with the intergalactic. Few closing narrative coups have been quite so satisfying.

Among the year’s best films.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist