by Ren Zelen,
The success of Sicario (2015) has created interest in Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve’s body of work (Incendies 2010, Prisoners 2013, Enemy 2013) and a desire to see how he will tackle the science fiction genre in his latest feature Arrival, particularly so since he was absent from its premiere at the London Film Festival and busy shooting Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s milestone sci-fi film.
Working from Ted Chiang’s short novella ‘Story of Your Life,’ writer Eric Heisserer and director Villeneuve introduce us to Arrival’s central character, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams). We first meet her alone in a lakeside house with only memories of her past life for company. Louise has suffered a personal trauma, outlined in the movie’s opening minutes. Her deep-seated grief has made her objective, imperturbable and removed from the troubles of everyday life.
An unforeseen complication however, is the sudden arrival of mysterious, pod-like spaceships in twelve unrelated locations across the globe. Louise is a respected academic in language and linguistics, and is recruited by the US Government, represented by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber, to join an elite team whose apparently impossible task is to work out a way of communicating with the aliens. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) her mission is to enter the creatures’ craft and learn their intentions.
Louise is intellectually gifted and exceptionally intuitive in the field of language and communication. Many of the most engaging scenes are essentially about Louise’s breakthrough in her communication with the aliens. The creatures themselves are realized in a truly striking, foreign and unusual way. I don’t wish to diminish the effect by describing them too clearly, but they emerge from a sea of fog like Lovecraftian monsters, vocalizing in sonorous tones like underwater behemoths.
Louise hits on the method of using visual aids which provides some arresting images, as the alien ‘alphabet’ is expressed in smoky circles dotted with irregular inky splodges that appear to be crammed with meaning.
Initially the science and language teams in all locations are plugged into an international video conference so that they can collate and share their knowledge and discoveries. In the outside world uncertainty, panic and kneejerk-reaction violence become widespread. Looting and the inevitable gun-toting discourse breaks out. As Louise and her team make progress communicating with the alien race, on earth, humans prove less adept at communicating with each other.
Soon, the more paranoid and pugnacious nations, in this case China and Russia (not the US of course, which has never acted aggressively) prepare to attack the heptapods (as the aliens come to be known) before the heptapods attack them. Communication and co-operation between nations breaks down.
As mankind teeters on the verge of chaos and war, Louise, Ian and their teams race against time to clarify the responses they have received from the heptapods – and Villeneuve has an inventive, truly sci-fi reveal up his sleeve to demonstrate how Louise is able to break through the barriers of difference.
The more Louise learns about the heptapods, the more we learn about her. When Arrival outlines Louise’s attempts to ‘translate’ the language of the extra-terrestrials it provides what all good sci-fi should – gripping ideas that offer perspectives on our own existence.
The movie becomes increasingly complex, rippling out questions like the circles of the alien alphabet – how much, or how little, are we humans aware of the progress and patterns of our own lives? How does our past influence our future? What is a beginning and what is an ending, or are these actually false concepts?
Amy Adams gives an appropriately muted performance, keeping the story grounded when the ideas threaten to get too lofty. There is a tragedy in Louise’s life which mirrors Sandra Bullock’s damaged astronaut in Gravity and hearkens back to the lonely curiosity of Jodie Foster in Contact, but Louise is more contemplative and speculative, edging her way into the unknown while negotiating her way around the military and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) an obstructive CIA operative.
Arrival, as all Villeneuve’s films, is intelligently and effectively crafted. The cinematography is by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, taking its cue from the visual images, is powerfully emotive or an eerie hum.
Villeneuve avoids many of the excesses of CGI. We have none of the whizz-bang action of sci-fi explosions and laser guns, or the impressive glamour of space suits or slick sets, opting instead for clumsy HAZMAT gear and mundane and familiar equipment and technology. Instead Arrival offers us ideas to ponder upon, sometimes stretching the profundities and offering no ultimate answers – striving to express the inexpressible perhaps, but weaving its own complex structure that instigates post-film contemplation and discussion – and that is all that any decent filmmaker can hope to do.
Arrival is out 11th Nov