Oh for the days of Close Encounters when we dreamed that first contact would be as elegant as five simple notes.
Arrival, the latest film from Sicario director Denis Villeneuve1, looks at the complexities of communicating with an alien race.1 When twelve mysterious craft appear at sites around the globe, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is drafted in to help start a dialogue with their occupants before China and Russia set off an inter-species war.2 Where do you begin, though, when you know nothing about their language or customs?
Based on a Nebula-winning novella by Ted Chiang3, Arrival may sound like a purely intellectual exercise, but at its core are questions about time and human connection, of which language is apparently a crucial part.4 Even as Louise5 gets to know her colleague, mathematician Ian (Jeremy Renner)6, she’s haunted by memories of her dead daughter. Even so, just as Louise informs the harassed Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) about the task at hand, you can’t afford to make any assumptions. 7
Bradford Young’s cinematography is superbly crisp8 and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s magisterially reverberating score9 lend Arrival a remoteness that detracts somewhat from the emotional payoff,10 but as hard sci-fi with emotional import, the film is an impressive achievement.
1 Which, ironically, has far fewer diacritical remarks than I’d assume. It’s not, in fact, pronounced “Villénéuvé”; as I’d been grandly declaiming it.
2 Ironically they’re not communicating either. Meanwhile, on the American side, civil disobedience and inflammatory punditry — thanks a lot First Amendment — threaten to throw the country into chaos. CIA representative Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) believes the aliens are trying to turn humankind against each other, citing our long history of doing it to ourselves — failing to grasp, of course, that there is no precedent for any of this.
3 The somewhat more revealingly titled Story of Your Life, and adapted, somewhat surprisingly, by Eric Heisserer — whose script for Lights Out I felt was allegorically misjudged, especially in its climax.
4 The film Arrival most reminds me of is an Earth-set Interstellar, though that was grander and more starry-eyed (literally so) and with, ultimately, no real obligation to science.
5 Wan and muted, Adams conveys Louise’s apparent grief beautifully, as well as her fervor to understand the nature and purpose of these visitors.
6 Renner is given less to work with but is his usual wry, engaging self. He and Adams shared an understated chemistry; previously unexplored in American Hustle.
7 Especially when your conversation partners are elephant-skinned “heptapods” who seem to communicate slowly in written form; spraying out spidery circular glyphs from behind a force-field. They’re unlike anything we’ve seen before on the big screen, though, shrouded in mist, they do recall the 456 in Torchwood: Children of Earth, which increasingly seems like a, if not seminal then at least, increasingly prescient TV show.
8 As Louise is transported to the ship site via helicopter, an ocean of mist rolls back to reveal a vast flattened black oblong, suspended in the sky above the green plains of Montana, like a harbinger of doom. Colors, like the orange of radiation suits, pop against deep shadows as Louise and Ian struggle and writhe within them like ill-fitting second skins.
9 The upcoming Blade Runner 2 will mark Jóhannsson’s fourth collaboration with Villeneuve, having already been Oscar nominated for Sicario.
10 In that regard, at least, Interstellar may be the more satisfying film; even if it invests everything in sentimentality at the cost of coherency.
11 Can you name another film that uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to make a point about pre-determinism within a dramatic context?.. Probably not.
Arrival will receive its first public UK screenings during the London Film Festival. Click here for more information.