It’s always a treat when the chance arises to see a film with very little foreknowledge. In that regard in a world of Marvel cookie cutter repetition and uninspiring sci-fi blockbusters Arrival made for a nice change, as all I knew going in was that it was sci-fi and it had generally favourable reviews.
I will admit that the fact it starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner didn’t fill me with hope, while I don’t recall seeing either be actively bad, nothing springs to mind that I’ve seen that made me excited by their presence.
Forest Whitaker is equally one of those actors who never seems to play a bad role but here wasn’t the driving force of the movie and was in what gets called a ‘character actor’ kind or part.
All three here though were very good but Adams was a particular stand out as she is the linchpin of the film not only for the narrative, but also the central point of the ideas it deals with.
The narrative is, as I have suggested a fairly standard science fiction trope of ‘first contact’. A mysterious set of space craft appear in 12, apparently random, locations around the planet and military and scientific experts proceed to try to and work out what they want with the usual mix of aggressive posturing and paranoid conspiracy.
On this level there is the added extra of a reflection of what’s become known as ‘post-truth’ with the CIA, ‘alt-right’ media and (slightly stereotypical) international tensions all present forming the background to the other narrative centring on Adams’ linguist, Louise Banks.
This other aspect is hard to discuss without spoilers, other than to say it deal with perceptions of time and human nature in regards of free will and determinism. What makes it particularly good is that it does what the best sci-fi does, in the way of 2001 or Close Encounters, it leaves the audience open to discuss what they’ve just seen while answering enough questions to be satisfying.
This is the films biggest strong point as, while the basic plot and performances, along with the special effects, are all engaging it is how it gets your mind ticking over that is Arrival’s most impressive feature (that said I’m not sure mid-afternoon in a busy city makes for the most conducive way of watching it in that regard).
Arrival exists as a stand out of recent sci-fi for two reasons; first it is a compelling story that is genuinely absorbing and constantly leaves the viewer in suspense of what is to come, the other is the sense of raising open questions that already have me wanting to see the film again and discuss it with others who have seen it, and most of this comes through a stand out performance from Adams that is, at its best, genuinely effecting.