Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whittaker
Forget the beautifully handy universal translators of the Star Trek franchise, Dennis Villeneuve’s latest – and best – film squeezes the brakes on the traditional sci-fi concept of first contact by digging deep into the dilemma of how to communicate with a totally alien species when you have no common ground as a starting point.
Amy Adams plays linguistics specialist Dr. Louise Banks. Flashes at the top of the picture give us some context for her. We understand that she has, at some point, raised and lost a daughter. These images imbue her from the get-go with our empathy (perhaps the first and foremost tool of cinema). We feel that she is a survivor, emotionally resonant to us thanks to this brief, economical introduction. Twelve lens-shaped alien ships have appeared around the world sparking mass panic and hysteria. The kind of unreal, cataclysmic event that just… changes… everything… (think 911, or the election of Donald Trump). Thanks to her renown, Dr Banks is called in by the US government to attempt to decipher a communication from within the vessel hovering over a field in Montana.
She is joined by science-type Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they are taken inside the gigantic ship in order to begin a dialogue. Understandably, Col. Weber (Forest Whittaker) is eager to learn – as the world is – what it is these visitors want.
Villeneuve’s film divides neatly into three acts and the first is consumed wholly by the spectacle of introduction, which is achieved beautifully. With their curved, monolithic imagery, the alien ships kindle memories of those seen early on in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, but where that film accelerated into high concept silliness, Arrival holds its grip. Like the best of big screen sci-fi, this movie enjoys and makes time for every little discovery. Louise and Ian’s first journey into the ship is played as a seismic event in the course of the picture, rather like the initial ship discovery in Scott’s better franchise kickstarter Alien, and so it should. This is an event for the audience as much as the characters. Villeneuve plays his role as showman expertly.
The carefully doling of information continues into the film’s second phase, once Dr. Banks has made contact with the alien beings (known as heptopods for their seven spindling limbs). Vocal communication takes a back seat as Dr. Banks focuses on cracking their cyclical language. In the process, she feels a strange bond growing between herself and the visitors, triggering further flashes to her time with her daughter, opening up pathways and inspiration for the task ahead. Here Arrival toys with ideas seen previously in the likes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of A Third Kind in which an advanced level of intuition and empathy is used to inspire a character to leap forward. There’s a deep-seated sense of wish-fulfilment in such fantasies; that an outside force might present us with a better way of understanding one another. That psychic bonds might one day be formed that allow us to answer the most maddening question we have when looking at others, even those we know and love the most; what are you thinking?
Meanwhile, all around her, the fragile communication link between Montana and the eleven other worldwide sites begins to break down. So Arrival plays in waters we’re already familiar with, reflecting the dissonant, divided nature of humanity that science fiction quite often likes to remind us of. Villeneuve uses a motif of opening several scenes with a shot of a roof or a ceiling before the camera glides down to reveal the events occurring beneath it. It compliments the sense that events on Earth – the ‘below’ – are being monitored, even tested by those coming from ‘above’. If it is a test, Villeneuve’s film creates tension from the threat that out petty and distrustful natures might not allow us to pass it.
The film’s third act I’m loath to talk about, as it pushes Arrival and specifically Dr. Banks into new areas best discovered through watching. The list of influences here seems to be ever-growing, but you can throw Christopher Nolan into the mix. Quite importantly, however, this is the Nolan of the early to mid noughties; the fluid, flexible director whose conundrums flowed toward audiences as opposed rigidly surrounding them. Pleasingly, this is Hollywood science fiction with as much brains as it has heart, and the final section walks a delicate line to satisfy both. It’s heartfelt without veering into schmaltz or sentiment, clever without being too smug about it.
Adams is excellent here. In a film which examines the very nature of communication, she is able to convey much with relatively little in terms of dialogue. Eyes and gestures are as important, and her work compliments the film at large which asks us to consider the many, many ways we manage to communicate with one another. Huge props also for the sound design – especially in the middle of the movie. Again, it feels as though Villeneuve is making use of all the tools at his disposal, not just his actors, to tell this story in the most involving way that he can.
His past films (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) have frequently seen their key characters forced to reconcile past traumas through the appearance of external stressors. Arrival continues this trend but ‘sci-fi’s it up, but not at the expense of creating something appealing to the masses. Where previously he has alternated between pop cinema presentations and more personal, experimental films, Arrival sees him successfully combining both sensibilities. In short, it makes Arrival a very satisfying experience. A big budget movie that openly asks it’s audience to both think and feel. We could use more pictures of its kind.