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Film review: Arrival – Amy Adams reaches out to aliens in clever sci-fi drama

Director Denis Villeneuve follows up acclaimed thriller Sicario with an emotional and intellectual look at how we’d handle visitors from space

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 8:02am

3.5/5 stars

Denis Villeneuve, who directed the superlative thriller Sicario , delivers another clever drama with the science-fiction movie Arrival. Based on a short story by Asian-American writer Ted Chiang, it’s an unusually delicate tale about how to cope with an alien arrival on Earth. Although much of the science has been stripped out of the narrative – what’s left is a basic mélange of linguistics and theoretical physics – it still manages to combine emotion and intellect.

When 12 alien spaceships land in different countries, linguist Louise (Amy Adams) is asked by the US military to work out a way of communicating with them. The aliens seem friendly, but what’s the purpose of their visit?

Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams on the challenges of filming sci-fi drama

Aided by theoretical physicist Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise makes progress slowly, helped by some strange dreams. Will she be able to find a common language before one of the uneasy coalition of frightened world governments falters and tries to blow up the alien spacecraft?

The science in the film is less about space travel then the nature of time. Many theoretical physicians think that time has already happened in its entirety – that is, everything that was, is, and will be, occurred at the same time. Arrival takes this idea, and models its drama around it. But the science is only namechecked, and the story has more in common with entertainment like TV’s Doctor Who than, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s deeply scientific 2001: a Space Odyssey .

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The international politics that result from the arrival of the aliens get a lot of attention, and rightly so. Now that scientists think that an alien visit is plausible, although not statistically likely, it’s fascinating to ponder whether the world would be able to unite as one to deal with the visitors.

With an eye to the Chinese market, the producers have made sure that China plays a big part in the proceedings. Thankfully they have not located Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl TV tower on the Hong Kong waterfront, as they did in a publicity poster.

Arrival opens on January 12

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