Milo Garner reviews Dennis Villeneuve’s new film, Arrival.
On the back of his excellent (and profitable) Sicario, Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve brings to the screen a modern rarity – a soft science-fiction film without any action. This is the kind of film that calls back to the likes of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Blomkamp’s District 9, featuring aliens that aren’t here to obliterate mankind, though their true purpose is obscure.
This obscurity isn’t only in regards to the intentions of the outsiders, but the outsiders themselves. In Arrival everything about the aliens is a mystery to both the characters and the viewers. The strange ovoid spacecraft without any signs of propulsion technology; the huge glasslike pane that separates them from the humans when on board; the vague, tentacled silhouettes they create within their gaseous chamber. Unlike the ‘greys’ of Close Encounters and the humanoid ‘prawns’ of District 9 we are presented with an intelligent lifeform that cannot be related to in a physical sense like we are used to. It is this that offers the story a sense of verisimilitude typically absent in films of this genre. As many real-life physicists have predicted, an intelligent alien lifeform would probably not look or behave like humans do, as it would be a remarkable, and quite unbelievable, coincidence.
And this is what makes up the bulk of the story itself: the attempt to relate, or more accurately communicate, with an alien race that is entirely unlike mankind. After twelve of these strange UFOs appear dotted across the earth, the governments of the world, spurred primarily by fear, quickly decide to decipher their purpose as soon as possible. This is where Louise (Amy Adams) enters, a language expert picked up by the US government to help them translate the strange tones emanating from the ‘heptapods’ aboard the sole alien craft on United States’ soil. She is accompanied by physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) and the two essentially lead the film, with some aid from Forrest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber.
For those unfamiliar with the film, there may be mutterings of ‘is that it?’ – it does seem a scant synopsis. Where is the drama in translating an alien tongue? But by engaging with the conceptual and philosophic basis of linguistics, Villeneuve and writers Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer manage to create drama where there would typically be none – the very event of managing to communicate a basic idea to the aliens, or understanding one received, becomes a momentous occasion in of itself. The deeper the film goes the more effective this becomes. It is at its best when considering the conceptual basis of language: how a different form of linguistic understanding could shape the way one experiences the world around them, as well as the perception of oneself.
As the movie goes on, this purely intellectual interest in language is naturally compounded with US political interest. Chinese threats of military action against the aliens imbue the latter two acts with a sense of jeopardy that saves it from a potential middle sag. This means there is an excellent exploration of both the central themes of communication and the quite realistic political concern. Arrival is grounded enough in the real world to remain plausible and engaging, even if China’s narrative position, as embodied by General Shang (Tzi Ma), is rather stereotypical.
The technical aspects of Arrival are, by and large, superb. Bradford Young’s minimalist cinematography often brings meaning to the many wordless passages of this otherwise wordy film. For example, Louise is often distanced by an oppressively shallow depth of field which effectively describes quite well her position throughout the film without it being explicitly stated.
Besides the camera and writing, the sound design and soundtrack are perhaps the film’s biggest assets. The noises surrounding the aliens and their craft are eerie and unsettling, not sinister, but certainly otherworldly. These sounds are excellently woven into the soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic composer who formerly worked with Villeneuve on Sicario, another film with excellent music. In Arrival Jóhannsson continues to offer a minimalist score, often focusing on long bass notes accompanied by piano and choral loops and overlaid with the strange alien-esque sounds. This soundscape creates ample tension and offers the film some essential extra atmosphere. Given musical pairings can often result in the best work from both partners (Leone and Morricone, Fellini and Rota, Herzog and Popol Vuh) it can only be hoped this is the beginning of a continued creative partnership. On the note of music, Arrival is also topped and tailed by Max Richter’s beautiful ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ from The Blue Notebooks, which could elevate any film, let alone one that actually uses that repetition as a narrative device.
As far as the acting talent goes, Amy Adams deserves serious praise for what could well be a career-best performance, and in a career like hers that is quite the achievement. Her character, Louise, is never given much actual exposition, yet Adams manages to convey enough about her, often through her facial expressions, to bring necessary depth. At the opposite end of the subtlety spectrum comes Whitaker’s Colonel Weber, a no-nonsense straight-faced military man who has very limited understanding of anything beyond guns, boots, and digging (presumably). This makes him the fish-out-of-water character who needs all the scientific jargon explained to him. Thankfully his role is dialled back just enough that the science can be explained without seeming overly patronising. It doesn’t make his character seem any less a shoe-in, but given the only alternative option would be a super-intelligent physicist playing dumb, it was likely the best possible choice.
Taken whole, this is a remarkably interesting, and as Hollywood goes, quite a complex science fiction film. Arrival explores the foundation of human perception and communication in a novel way, often using the aliens as more a framing device for this, rather than anything more. Villeneuve has replicated the success of his street-level crime Sicario, to high minded sci-fi, and so is once again responsible for one of the best films of the year. With any luck he won’t stop here.
Featured image: Refinery 29.