London Film Festival review: Arrival – one of the best films of the year
London Film Festival review: Arrival

Matthew Turner casts his critical eye over Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi drama Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner

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Arrival is a sci-fi drama about a linguistics expert and a theoretical physicist who are employed by the military to attempt to communicate with extra-terrestrials.


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nathaly Thibault, Mark O’Brien
Genre: Sci-Fi
Country: USA
Release date: November 10, 2016
Cert: 12A
Running time: 116 mins


After Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve continues his run of terrific films with this intelligent first contact drama that recalls the likes of Contact and Interstellar, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang (entitled Story of Your Life), the film is a profoundly moving, beautifully made story that presents a timely message about the importance of communication and understanding.

It’s also one of the best films of the year.

When giant egg-like alien ships take up positions around the world, U.S. military honcho Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists the help of linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt to communicate with the squid-like creatures.

After the aliens produce symbols using a cloudy, ink-like substance, Louise begins to understand their language, causing her to flash back to the language development of her daughter, who died of cancer in her teens.

However, just as she’s on the verge of discovering why the aliens have arrived, the mission is thrown into jeopardy by impatient military forces lead by China and Russia.

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Amy Adams is wonderful in the lead role

Initially, Arrival doesn’t seem all that different from countless other first contact movies, and actively embraces several of the expected clichés, albeit in very stylish fashion, thanks to some exceptional production design work and Bradford Young’s striking cinematography.

However, it soon becomes clear that there’s much more here than meets the eye, and part of the joy of the film lies in the way that it communicates its thought-provoking ideas, as signified early on by a brief discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a non-fictional linguistic theory that has a significant impact on the story.

Adams is simply wonderful in the lead role, anchoring the story with a sensitive, driven performance that’s alive with hope, in stark contrast to surrounding government types like Michael Stuhlbarg’s Agent Halpern.

This is very much Adams’ movie, with the rest of the support cast largely left trailing in her wake, though Renner brings an appealing warmth to his role as Donnelly and Whitaker is reliably growly and authoritative as Weber.

In conjunction with Joe Walker’s expert editing, Villeneueve orchestrates a number of masterful reveals throughout the film, several of which are genuinely awe-inspiring, such as the full extent of the creature design.

There’s also a superbly atmospheric score by Jóhann Jóhannsson that expertly heightens the tension of the various alien encounters.

Worth seeing?

Combining stunning visuals, provocative ideas and powerful emotion, this is a refreshingly intelligent slice of sci-fi with a compelling central performance from Amy Adams. Highly recommended.

Arrival is released in UK cinemas on November 10.

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Denis Villeneuve: 5 other films from the Sicario director you need to see

Arrival: a sci-fi movie worth getting excited for