Review: Twisting and turning, 'Arrival' is clever sci-fi that leaves you lost for words

Amy Adams stars as a linguist trying to communicate with mysterious aliens that have just arrived on the planet

Review: Twisting and turning, 'Arrival' is clever sci-fi that leaves you lost for words

Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams in 'Arrival' [Paramount]

Where’s Amy Adams’ Oscar, eh? In her near 20 year career on the big screen, the versatile actress – who else today has the kind of chops to perfectly pull off a pantomime Disney princess, a worry and wimple-wearing nun, and a cleavage-revealing disco queen – has been nominated five times for an Academy Award. The same number of acting nominations as Leonardo DiCaprio, the face that launched 10,000 tweets bemoaning his lack of one till it was fifth time lucky for dragging himself through the snow and spitting a lot bagged him the prize. Amy Adams won’t win an Oscar for Arrival, with the ponderous slice of clever sci-fi perhaps just a bit too chilly to sustain an awards season push. But with the film, Adams truly arrives as an actress, forcing viewers to notice the power of her subtlety. That she still doesn’t have an Oscar seem incomprehensible, which is rather apt in a film all about understanding.

Directed by Sicario helmer Denis Villeneuve, Arrival is adapted from the award-winning novella by writer Ted Chiang, considered a modern classic and often named among the murky world the unfilmable books. This is Villeneuve’s take on science fiction, finding a place nestled among the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey,The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind than what amounts to an action flick set in space.


Adams is Dr Louise Black, a linguist and university academic. An opening prologue, straight out of the Terrence Malick playbook, reveals she is weathering the mournful storm of having lost her daughter to cancer. Withdrawn and finding solace in her work, the appearance of 12 mysterious alien spacecrafts in random places across the world sees Forrest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber arrive in her office, playing a short audio file of the language spoken by the aliens inside. “What does it mean?” he asks, “Do they have mouths?” she replies.

Faster than you can say Klaatu barada nikto or hum the five-note earworm while making mountains out of mash, Adam’s linguist finds herself on the way to Montana, where the floating ship opens every 18 hours, shifting gravity and revealing a light at the end of the tunnel few people would have the courage to walk towards. Teamed with Jeremy Renner (charming as ever) as a theoretical physicist, the pair must try to bridge the interlocutory gap between two entirely different species before the army men, whose guns do all the talking, run out of patience.

So far, so Sphere, the 1998 Dustin Hoffman film about scientists trying to extract meaning from a floating shape. But Arrival revels in its slow and measured reveals. Two aliens, nicknamed Abbott and Costello, a mixture of squids and giraffes, shift in and out of view, their tensile tentacles capable of, for want of a better word, ejaculating a jumbled mix of circular forms, looking like the ring left behind by a coffee cup. These circles say something, meaning is hidden in plain sight, and figuring it out is slow work. But time isn’t on their side, with the failure to communicate mirrored in the increasingly tense messages sent back and forth between the military might of the world’s superpowers. China and Russia, each dealing with their own skyscraper-sized levitating kidney bean, want to know what’s going on and don’t care about Louise’s warning of nuance.

Cue plenty of scenes pushing Adams to the edge of her acting skills, displaying fragile calm on the outside, while on the inside, the waves of grief crash into dreams and fantasies, turning her in and out as she tries to discern the coffee rings in an instant. It’s all so subtle and clever that by the time the big reveal happens, the moment you finally cop on to the cinematic sleight of hand that Villeneuve’s been laying out in front of you, you’ll realise you’ve known it all along.

Arrival (12A/116 mins) is released nationwide on November 10th

Verdict: ★★★★☆ A deceptively simple piece of science fiction, grounded by stellar performances, that plays with form and language that, with a bit of patience, should leave you speechless

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