Science fiction films do tend to become an over the top mess in their storytelling and art design. Look no further than Jupiter Ascending or The 5th Wave, science fiction film that tried to be something new but ended up becoming conventional due to the complexity of each aspect of the film. What science fiction struggles to understand is that simplicity is sometimes the most effective. That’s what Denis Villeneuve Arrival does so well, the film is genius in its simplicity.
We and scientists alike have questioned for many years about how first contact with an extra-terrestrial species would happen, yet Arrival is a story about not about making alien contact, but HOW we make alien contact and answering all the questions that we have asked ourselves about encountering aliens (how would we speak to them, how would they understand us etc.), it appears that way but only on the surface. Scratch away a bit more and we discover that this film is more importantly about unity and coming together as a divided planet, a message very valuable and its importance discovered only recently.
Onto the elements of the film itself, the visual style of cinematography shines when our characters Louise and Ian (played by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) enter the simply designed alien spacecraft. You could almost confuse the framing of this film to the great Roger Deakins who Denis Villeneuve has worked with before on last year’s Sicario and will be back together on the Blade Runner sequel. However, you find this is the work of Bradford Young who has creating a visual style that compliments the screenplay very well. You will start to notice a lot of mirroring in this film, for instance, Louise and Ian when communicating with the aliens, it’s easy to draw a visual and situational comparison of discovery between the two parties. The two parties are after the same thing which strengthens the hidden message of unity.
Sound design is probably the most crucial element of science fiction because its opens an opportunity to become revolutionary. While I can’t say that Arrival’s sound design is revolutionary, what I can say is that it is still impressive. The sound of the aliens and the non-diegetic sound (soundtrack, voiceover etc.) enhance the mystery of why the aliens have arrived on earth and their purpose for being here.
Again, with the simplicity is the films choice of narrative. First contact is a pretty bog standard starting point to making science fiction story, it can be open to many ways of visual uniqueness. Arrival takes this narrative and approaches it is a very modern societal mood of governments wanting to handle the situation in their own country defining ways. In the film, America is seen to approach it very democratically whereas China approach the aliens with an action speak louder than words method. There’s also quite humorously a lot of communication between America and Australia, is there something we don’t know about?
With all the mystery that surrounds the aliens in the film, revealing their entire being does destroy part of the mystery. Throughout much of the film, we only see half of the alien’s physical appearance. This is the main selling point of the audience’s sense of mystery into these aliens. I personally though that if we didn’t see the entirety of the aliens, then it would have become a much more interesting and unique narrative. I enjoy film where the threat is never seen or only partially seen and Arrival could have suited this type of supposed threat.
The pacing of this film is one that I can only describe as deliberately slow, but unlike film with slow pacing, this film is easy to forgive. However, once we work out the reason as to why the aliens have arrived, it very in your face about it. The one advice I would give to someone before they go to see this film is a piece of advice that I feel is very out of character for me and that is to just let the story run its course and go with it. There is inter-cut scene where we see Louise with her daughter and I was sat there wondering, why is this relevant to the story, but you eventually find out and that’s what I mean when I say just go with it because you will come to understand by the conclusion.
Arrival is a simple but incredible film with a message relevant to the times, I was very impressed with its presentation and its ability to create simple drama from its character’s involvement with extra-terrestrial life. As David Villeneuve is stretching his directing talents to the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, a film that is important to a many number of people I know, myself included, I hope that he takes what he has created in Arrival and carries it over to what was another unique science fiction film.
Final Result: 9/10 – Excellent
Have you seen Arrival? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Next Time: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them