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Arrival review: Is it the advent of the modern space drama?

The film directed by Canadian filmmaker Dennis Villeneuve has been making rounds of the the major festivals, and might enter the Oscar race for 2017

IANS 25 November 2016, 4:15 PM
Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in a still from Arrival

Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in a still from Arrival Image: Facebook

Somewhere, buried deep down in the compelling crevices of this remarkable but slight treatise on outerspace invasion, is a true classic. It is in Amy Adams' eyes. Filled with fear and determination, they reflect a reality about the illusion of spatial invasion that this film sadly, cannot represent.

Not really.

It isn't the fault of the actors or technicians who are almost flawless. And neither does  Arrival lack in splendour. There are visuals of the the extra-terrestial aircrafts looming over the nervous anxious space scientists, which are very emphatic. In such scenes it isn't so much the difference between the scale of Man and Space (and by extension, outerspace creatures) that gets to us. It is just the enormity of the thought behind the theme of invasion.

We are constantly endangered by the unknown.

The film's protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is lucky to be decoding the thought processes of outerspace creatures who eventually turn out to be benign and peace-loving. But what if they were the opposite? The sense of imminent peril runs through the film, coursing through its throbbing veins with impunity and certainty.

 The film is modern in so many ways, and yet does not really hit the mark. What we get at the end of it all is not what we bargained for. Arrival promises an omnipotent experience but it delivers much less. Indeed the film is more remarkable for what it suggests, than what it delivers. In execution, the fine line between imagination and its manifestation is crossed with an infuriating consistency of tone. At times, it makes for a cliche.

No one raises his or her voice even in moments of tremendous emotional anguish. There is a crucial plot turn where Louise must convince the Chinese Premiere to avert global catastrophe. Here too, the narrative seeks strength in languor rather than anxiety. The high-points are sublimated into a disquieting stillness, the fear of the unknown superbly reified in Amy Adams expressions. She plays a language decoder given the task of connecting with the aliens. Of course Louise has a past tragedy haunting her present in unexpected ways.

The film, has been making the rounds of all the major festivals. It is also being considered for an Academy Award run, especially for Adams' performance.

And Adams truly does a tremendous job. The scenes from the past portraying a mother-daughter idyll remain hanging outside the crisp framework of the rest of the taut but slender film. Perhaps this is deliberate. Director Denis Villeneuve employs silences and stillness to accentuate the churning that lies beneath. He punctuates the scenes where Dr Banks and her associate (Jeremy Renner, struggling silently with an underwritten role) interact with aliens with a hemmed-in soundtrack that sounds like a shrill siren ringing in the distance ominously.

Renner and Adams in Arrival (Image: Facebook)

It's all in the distance, and in the past. And the time-twist that occurs in the plot to jolt us, only accentuates the lack of actual drama in the proceedings. Arrival is a film that leaves us distantly dissatisfied. But it is a peculiar kind of dissatisfaction-  the kind we feel when a beloved child leaves home to pursue his or her dreams.

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