Contemplative sci-fi drama portrays world in crisis after alien contact
Published 19/11/2016 | 00:00
Cocooned in the tiny bubbles that constitute our lives, planet Earth seems huge - a polluted rock cluttered with billions of competing lifeforms, whose paths rarely intersect.
As our world turns, we rarely look past national borders, let alone tilt our heads to the stars and contemplate how insignificant we are in the vast expanse of space.
To me, it's inconceivable that of all the planets we can see with the most powerful telescopes or probes, and the millions that will remain forever hidden, only our astronomical home is capable of sustaining intelligent life.
The greater surprise, surely, would be that we are alone.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is contemplative science-fiction drama, which imagines mankind's shambolic reaction to first contact with an otherworldly race, and the dangerous fractures that would appear as nations disagree over the best course of action.
If governments can't cooperate over the environment, finance and immigration, what hope is there when we collectively face a possible extinction event?
Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer aren't interested in Independence Day-style pyrotechnics, although their film is punctuated with impressive special effects sequences.
Like Close Encounters Of the Third Kind, Arrival philosophises and digests before it considers locking and loading a weapon.
Twelve giant obloid spacecraft enter Earth's atmosphere and descend over seemingly random locations including Devon, the Black Sea and a lush meadow in Montana.
US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) leads the American response and he recruits emotionally scarred linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to decipher a coded language used by the visitors.
Banishing painful memories of her young daughter's death, Louise aligns with military scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to unravel the conundrum, while the CIA, led by Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), considers the terrifying possibility that we are in the calm before an intergalactic storm.
'If this is some peaceful first contact, why send 12 ships? Why not send one?' asks a woman on a radio show, encapsulating the paranoia sweeping the globe.
As nations grow nervous, especially General Shang (Tzi Ma), chairman of the People's Liberation Army in China, Louise and Ian take potentially lethal leaps of faith to better understand the aliens' intentions.
Meanwhile, Captain Marks (Mark O'Brien) and other subordinates under Weber's command debate a blunt show of force against the tentacled extra-terrestrials.
Anchored by Adams' mesmerising performance, Arrival is an extremely stylish tale of grief and self-sacrifice that uncoils beautifully for two hours.
Pacing is deliberately pedestrian, cranking up tension as flawed characters wrestle with agonising questions of mortality.
The two visible aliens - affectionately referred to as Abbott and Costello - are a triumph of digital wizardry that doesn't distract from the script's deep emotional core.
At the very moment we discover we are not alone, we have never been further apart.