First contact has splashed across so many cinema screens and spun through so many books’ pages that the phrase has acquired a distinctly ironic tang. And despite ample gore, destruction and pyrotechnics, very few films fully capture the terrifying reality and unpredictable consequences that would ensue if, unprepared as we are now, extraterrestrial life did pay a visit.
However, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of the select few. Lacing a starkly elegant plot with bittersweet humanity, Arrival reveals the power of science fiction at its most introspective and existential. The film is based on Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story, Story of Your Life; however, it is no face-to-character visualisation of its parent, standing firmly as a piece of literature in its own right. Arrival steps slightly away from the dense scientific accuracy of Chiang’s story, and while giving viewers room to breathe, explores with grim modern relevance and breathtaking sweep the influence of language on the world around us, the heavy responsibility of choice and the tragically uplifting resilience of the human spirit.
The film follows linguist Dr. Louise Banks, who, on the arrival of twelve extraterrestrial ‘shells’ across the globe, is enlisted by the US military. She must work with cheerfully curious physicist, Ian Donnelly, to attempt communication with the alien visitors – heptapods, as they come to be known.
Arrival operates on two main levels: the struggle to discover the heptapods’ intentions before belligerent international governments and panicking citizens spark a global conflict; and the spiralling effects of Louise’s growing mastery of the alien language, Heptapod B, on her life, and the lives of those around her. The determination with which Louise, supported by Ian, pursues a peaceful, tolerant, approach to communicating with the heptapods is heartening in a world where compassion and respect are so often derided as ‘political correctness gone mad’: the losers’ choice, weak. Without preaching, Arrival shows the courage it takes to strip off a hazmat suit, step into the unknown and reach out to visitors. Louise is undoubtedly scared, but she makes the choice to stand firm amidst the panic and resist the temptation to strike out in fear.
Indeed, to viewers, that fear is very real. The film doesn’t just state, “everyone is scared”; the audience feels the pit-of-the-stomach tension and uncertainty of first contact in every scene. Alarms blare suddenly; jets tear across the sky in a Bradbury-esque suggestion of events tumbling towards breaking point; a canary twitters nervously. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s minimalist soundtrack of ghostly choirs, subtle percussion and unearthly string-like hums and sighs conveys a persistent sense of foreboding.
Similarly deft is the exploration of language woven into the fabric of the film itself. The plot hinges on the mystery of Heptapod B: Louise must find out how to talk to the aliens, what they want, and ultimately discover how to live with the far-reaching consequences of learning a startlingly different worldview. This exploration of language’s power builds from one-on-one human interactions to the interstellar, and at every level, clear communication allows ‘alien’ ideas and ways of being to be shared and understood, while hostility breeds only chaos. Villeneuve suggests that the differences of language in which even different English-speakers are saturated alters one’s perceptions and reactions, and doesn’t scruple to highlight the superiority of Louise’s thoughtful, non-zero-sum approach to rash violence.
Arrival presents a lot of information, but the film’s tight pacing allows the audience space to watch and understand the unfolding complexity. Villeneuve doesn’t make it easy, however: as the film progresses, the line between backstory explanations, plot motion and prophecy blurs and shifts. Yet the moments of revelation, when they come, are all the more stunning for this slowly-cleared ambiguity.
Stunning, yes, but with the unravelling of the mystery comes great tragedy. Having worked so courageously to learn Heptapod B, Louise’s new understanding brings not just new skills, but the burden of seemingly impossible choice; an intimate, heartbreaking choice that will take more courage than anything up to this point. With Louise trapped by the inevitable, the film suggests that perhaps agency is not choosing one’s future, but facing the future that awaits with fortitude, in the knowledge that there will be great pain, but also unbelievable joy.
That Louise can make such a choice shows the emotional complexity and strength of her character, brought to life by Amy Adams’ sensitive performance. Perhaps most endearingly, Louise doesn’t progress from ordinary to strong throughout the story; rather, she is both extremely competent and totally human throughout the film. In a similarly authentic vein, the various military figures are neither heroes nor buffoons, just disparate people trying to achieve a shared goal, nonetheless framed by their own experiences. Jeremy Renner’s performance is not as brilliantly insightful as Adams’, but Ian’s growth from almost callously curious to understanding and supportive, suggests that the best of science fiction is not meeting aliens, but meeting ourselves and the humans around us.
What’s more, Arrival is simply beautiful to look at. The film is clean and elegant, with immaculate CGI that conveys the inky intricacy of Heptapod B with equal dexterity as it does the giant, faceless heptapod shells. There is no skimping on stunningly dramatic scenery, either. The Montana ‘landing’ ground, first seen from the air as clouds pour into a verdant valley and around the heptapods’ craft, is a grand location commensurate to the film’s grand thematic proportions.
Arrival is successful because not only is it an elegant twist on first contact, or an intellectual mystery, but a sensitive exploration of the forces shaping our choices and the power of courageous decisions. Filled with intriguing scientific possibilities and ample technology, the film goes further and fulfils science fiction’s noblest brief: to use the otherworldly to cast light on deeply human dilemmas. In doing so, Arrival is achingly, tragically uplifting, a film that takes root in the mind and lives long after the cinema curtains close.
Arrival will be available on DVD in Australia from 22 February 2017