Film review: Arrival — ‘Magical oddity’

Denis Villeneuve’s alien movie transports us into a realm of weightless wonder
Amy Adams in 'Arrival'

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How many times can you crack the same, or same-looking, egg? In movies about extraterrestrial invasion the plots are always one of two. Either the egg/spaceship is cracked to produce life and hope — organisms weird yet recognisable, creepy yet communicable. Or it’s cracked to produce a gooey and eruptive nightmare — a bloody yolk, beyond parley or propitiation, of war, viruses or monster forces.

The best space-alien movies keep you guessing, at least during act one. Arrival, from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), teases us the French-Canadian way. Hollywood stars may prowl the American valley where the giant upended egg has “landed” — ubiquitous Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals) as the linguistics boffin recruited to decode the sounds and ink-squirting signs of the squid-like “heptapods”, Jeremy Renner as her physicist team mate — but the nuanced, Nordic visuals could have escaped from some Québécois art flick. Overcast skies; misty landscapes; runic colloquies among the brass (the army’s Forest Whitaker, the CIA’s Michael Stuhlbarg). The ordinary ambushed by the extraordinary.

Twelve of these giant UFOs have landed across the globe. Do they intend war or peace? China, we learn, has made sword-rattling noises. So Adams has hours, not days, to be elevated recurringly up the space silo’s interior, where gravity and grammar evaporate in a realm of weightless wonder. As she watches the inky sign-words issue from the starfish-shaped hands and float in air, the blurry, spiky O-rings they form start to look like crowns of thorns. And it does get a bit Christly, this tale spirit-birthed from The Day the Earth Stood Still out of 2001. (The original short story was by Ted Chiang.)

In its low-key lyricism with glimpses into the epiphanic, this is a beautifully controlled movie. Icelandic-born composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score adds a deeper layer of the fathomless-ethereal. Even its bursts of alarm — harsh and eerie lowings like Wagner’s cow-horn in Götterdämmerung — are part of Arrival’s magical oddity, keeping us moored to this planet while suggesting the distant, sonorous possibilities of those beyond.

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