Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches. What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive? – Michael Stone (David Thewlis), Anomalisa
Arrival opens with the landing of 12 grey, svelte, monolith-type ships on Earth. No warning, no message, no threat, no abduction. Panic reigns. From wild hysteria on the streets to the quiet panic among square-jawed generals and tight-lipped bureaucrats, the arrival tempts visions of a world hurtling towards its inevitable end. On this, the last day of 2016, the feeling throughout the Western world is that we’re experiencing a similar thing. Celebrity deaths, shock political outcomes, and a general feeling of pessimism hastily beckon the end of this annus horribilis. This is a key reason why Arrival is my film of 2016. With few aliens and fewer explosions this Hollywood blockbuster shows – as we dangle on the precipice of the abyss – that wonder, communication and humanity enable our survival and the ability to walk out on the other side, hand in hand.
As the ships land, the audience’s reaction is not fear but wonder. David Lean would be proud. As unnatural clouds drift over mountains, on the grand expanse of a green field stands a solitary alien craft. Unfamiliar yet serene, DoP Bradford Young’s photography captures the elegiac beauty of first contact. Throughout, Young transforms a tale of linguistics and death into a visual tapestry as wild as the stormy sky, and as serene as a calm sea. The conveyance of awe and magic within the uncertain context is just one aspect of Arrival‘s many remarkable qualities. Rather than creating false threats and synthetic joys, Denis Villeneuve is able to evoke true wonder; a sensation and essence so often missed by filmmakers. Think on the last time a film made you gasp, feel awe, excited you without a boom or bang. There’s no hiding the fact that 2001: A Space Odyssey was a large inspiration for Villeneuve’s fifth film in as many years, and he serves that classic well.
Beyond the spectacle, Villeneuve is fascinated by the human reaction. The eerie arrival is just the hook. Arrival is a tale of moving past hysteria through reason, intelligence and communication. As the ever-superb Amy Adams and co. enter the ship, the outside world’s chaos and crisis morphs into an atmosphere of ineffability and strength. The hyperbole of world-ending fiascoes is left behind, as something bigger and more important than any individual moment takes hold. Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, faithfully adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, aims to prove the value of discussion, a message that feels increasingly relevant and revelatory. Considering the relatively slow, uncinematic nature of the script and concept, it’s a wonder Arrival works so well. Yet Heisserer’s script – the unsung hero of this project – makes us re-evaluate how we read movies, and the importance of communication.
The movie is not about aliens so much as how we communicate with each other, whatever the language. Moreover, Arrival explores how communication is vital to our understanding of the world – not just to survive but to thrive. It is not always through violence, bombast or casting the first stone that we conquer our greatest challenges. It is in equal parts the operation of speaking and listening. In a movie of this budget and scope, that is a bold message to deliver. As the world scrambles to figure out why the extraterrestrials landed, countries come together to share intelligence and solve the “problem”. Despite some slightly hackneyed bureaucratic touches courtesy of Michael Stuhlbarg, the message is captivating throughout.
All of this flowering ‘beauty’ would feel hollow and pompous without a stunning anchor at its centre. Amy Adams, an actress of sensational quality, provides the canvas around which the central drama unfolds. She is calm and composed; restrained, yet heartfelt; and intelligent but free from Hollywood caricature, wholly and genuinely engaged in the task at hand. There are few, if any, other performers who could handle this tightrope so well. The actor’s core strength is her ability to own a film without being the “star”. Her presence is felt, though never distracts. Her conveyance of so many human qualities ensures that the film can work. She receives able support from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, but there’s no mistaking that Adams is the vital ingredient that makes Arrival work.
The celebration and examination of humanity is what gives Arrival lasting impact. 2016 may seem to exist in an overwhelming black cloud. All of us have had a year full of days good and bad. Yet, as in Arrival, we incrementally evolve, and tackle adversity head-on. Take Adams’ character here, Dr. Louise Banks: she faces an insurmountable, almost impossible, challenge deciphering an alien language, whilst plagued by flashbacks of a lost daughter and a broken marriage. As it’s revealed that these are actually flash-forwards, and each step takes her towards an unhappy future, she nonetheless perseveres. Though she loses, everybody wins. And in real life we all lose, but it’s our humanity and values that allow us to overcome. This is the message Arrival evokes. The film allows us to feel wonder in darkness, it challenges us to communicate when confronted and do the right thing. Arrival is a film that looks forward. A film that invites vulnerability, viewing it not as a weakness but as an opportunity. An opportunity to engage, to become involved, and to conquer fear for the common good. The film is a balm in these trying times, calling for a future far brighter than we can imagine.
So to recap, here’s our full Top 20 for 2016:
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2016
20 – The Witch
19 = Son of Saul
19 = The Hateful Eight
18 – Midnight Special
17 – American Honey
16 = Embrace of the Serpent
16 = Captain America: Civil War
15 – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
14 – Creed
13 – Hail, Caesar!
12 – The Revenant
11 – Weiner
10 – Everybody Wants Some!!
9 – Zootropolis
8 – Anomalisa
7 – Paterson
6 – The Neon Demon
5 – The Nice Guys
4 – Room
3 – Spotlight
2 – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
1 – Arrival