With eyeballs pinned back by the computer imagery of Independence Day and the Star Wars reprise of the original, it seems logical that Arrival should be marketed as science fiction. A number of alien craft descend on the Earth and hover — so what do they want, and are they enemies about to harvest our poor, depleted planet?
Actually, no: their purpose is revealed only towards the end, and the film is subdued, almost crafted for nouveau outlets. Its avoidance of crashing conflict focuses on Dr Louise Banks, a linguist tormented by flashes of visions of past and future. It’s an internal, emotional portrait. She’s played by Amy Adams in a performance of a lifetime.
There is one caveat. The aliens in their vast, oblate eggy ships are revealed as — well, that’s a reveal. I yearned for Stanley Kubrick’s hints at powers and shapes that are invisible; and how much more powerful an impression that makes. Here the "heptapods" are on show once Louise penetrates their craft, detracting from the inner compulsions as director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) makes his true purposes known, slowly and painfully.
On her twisted, gravityless encounter, Louise is accompanied or prodded by Jeremy Renner as a sceptical physicist who plays a greater role as events unfold; Forest Whitaker as a government agent who compels her to overcome her fears; Michael Stuhlbarg as a star standby; and Tzi Ma as a Chinese mandarin who believes what Louise has learnt from the heptapods. His presence is to impede worldwide preparations for war against the aliens.
Time and again Louise — who unravels the heptapods’ strange communications — is returned to as the film’s focus, stricken by visions of what is to come. The film enfolds itself in an almost inextricable narrative — a human one, not an interstellar plot. We are almost lost in Louise’s confusions, but it’s notWar of the Worlds stuff — not really for SF fandom.
The film’s texture is gritty; often simply switching to how the media wants to cover the "invasion" — not contemplating alternatives — conjoined to the 24-hour news cycle. Of course there is CGI, but it’s not sufficient to overwhelm the film’s humanity.