Denis Villeneuve’s compelling drama delivers a smart, thoughtful and emotional science fiction narrative…

When 12 alien craft arrive at different locations around the planet, the international community attempts to decipher the purpose of the alien visitation. But with confusion over some of the translations, tensions around the world mean that time is running out to discern the motives of the alien visitors.

Themes of alien invasions and other first contact stories have been an established part of cinema history for many years. Titles such as 1951 drama The Day The Earth Stood Still (a film that shares some themes with Arrival) through to the blockbuster era that brought us everything from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Independence Day have all given their own particular take on the concept.

In this case, a particularly anxious first contact scenario is explored by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. The director had already chalked up a few awards prior to Arrival, particularly for his 2011 film Incendies. So the decision to switch to a science fiction genre seems like an odd direction for the established director to head in. But in an era in which intelligent (and indeed emotional) science fiction films have been surpassed by big budget popcorn movies, Villeneuve has delivered a compelling film whose narrative takes the viewer through some intriguing hoops before coming to a very surprising ending.

Every 18 hours a door opens on each craft (or “shell”) allowing scientists and experts to enter in an attempt to communicate with the beings inside. In Montana, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) as part of the team tasked with trying to understand the alien language.

Amy Adam’s character is developed on screen with a series of vignettes of her personal world. Her professional life is dotted with moments of happiness as well as sadness and tragedy. So the apparent weariness to her character seems to be attributed to these incidents of her life. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that these poignant moments actually carry much more weight and serve the film’s larger plot in a particularly surprising way.

It’s very difficult to talk too much about Arrival without spoiling the film – and again, in a world that’s saturated with information about many films before the average viewer gets to see them, it’s rewarding to see the film without that kind of baggage. Much of the theme of the film revolves around language and communication, particularly the idea that language can rewire your brain in certain ways and change your perception of things. There’s also an exploration of the power of certain words and how they dramatically affect someone’s response to a situation.

There’s certainly a feeling of anxiety and at times dread throughout the film. There’s a disquieting use of scale – measured not just by the size of the alien craft, but also by their dark and cavernous interiors. The film’s palette is rendered in very desaturated colours, which increases the feelings of sleeplessness and anxiety. Villeneuve worked with cinematographer Bradford Young to craft this specific look. “We were trying to create the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning” suggests Villeneuve with the end result offering up a gloomy and bleak aspect to the film.

A large portion of Arrival’s power is rooted in its soundtrack, composed by Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson. Throughout the film, the brooding tonal shifts that Jóhannsson deploys invoke feelings of anxiety and unease. The bass-heavy moods are rendered through a combination of both electronic and classical arrangements, something that Jóhannsson has successfully employed on previous works (his 2006 album IBM 1401 – A User’s Manual being a particular highlight).

The choice of Jóhannsson to score Arrival continues a successful partnership between the composer and Denis Villeneuve that previously brought about the music scores to Villeneuve’s previous films Prisoners and Sicaro. In fact the pair are currently working together on the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049 (sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 film).

Arrival is one of those rare moments in cinema, a smart, intelligent science fiction film that still retains a vital humanity at its core and that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.