Sicario’s Denis Villeneuve is back with a big, glossy sci fi led by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, about the sudden arrival of twelve giant alien craft that hover silently over disparate locations around Earth. Louise Banks (Adams) is the top linguist drafted in to help the military try to communicate with the new arrivals. Ian Donnelly (Renner) is the theoretical physicist who joins her efforts, urged on forcefully by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker).
The twelve craft float above regions of the world with varying responses to their mysterious new neighbours, with China and Russia ready to escalate militarily, while the ever-patient and enlightened West resists – make of that stereotyping what you will. As time passes and the pressure on Louise to make a breakthrough (one way or the other) increases, she is revisited ever more painfully by painful events from her past concerning her daughter. Her 11 partner teams around the world become less cooperative, and Louise and Ian find themselves isolated in their ability, and perhaps their desire, to avoid conflict that seems inevitable.
Villeneuve fans who’ve seen Prisoners, Sicario or the marvellously shocking Enemy will find the levels of visual sophistication, married with elegant and unsettling sound design, that they’ve come to expect: the alien design is fluid and imposing, and is reflected in Johan Johansson’s score that flits between dark, electronic rumbles and delicate strings. The Blade Runner sequel due from Villeneuve next year feels in safe hands.
But this is a sci-fi that moves at its own pace: while Interstellar, probably Arrival’s closest recent comparison, was almost an hour longer, it contained much more incident. The middle act of this film is essentially a long, atmospheric, beautifully shot translation session; that is to say for much of the film, not much of anything happens. Much of the story is propelled by memories of Louise’s relationship with her daughter, which ultimately means that events play out largely inside her head. Amy Adams does fine work, particularly since the slightly thankless task of playing Lois Lane in Zack Snyder’s emotionally devoid Superman films can make it easy to forget the fine actor that excelled in The Master and The Fighter.
The end result is a film that doesn’t quite pay off and is slightly less than the sum of its parts. If Interstellar was a film that aimed too high but dazzled in flight, this one aims a little lower but never really flies.
Arrival opens in the UK on 11th November 2016.