Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an intelligent, beautiful sci-fi film that grounds the extraordinary very firmly in the ordinary.
At the start of 2016, Jeff Nichol’s Midnight Special reminded cinemagoers that a great sci-fi film doesn’t have to rely on huge intergalactic battles to be exciting or thought-provoking. Instead it showed the makings of a sci-fi classic can be found, counterintuitively in the smallest, most human moments. A mother clutching her ‘gifted’ son; a bright light emanating from a place it shouldn’t. Midnight Special showed that a good sci-fi film doesn’t have to show or tell – it should be a shadow of both.
Denis Villeneuve captures this perfectly in Arrival, an adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story in which aliens make first contact with earth. It’s a film that’s at its best when skirting on the fringes of science fiction, grounding it firmly within human, very intelligent concepts like linguistics, communication, fear and determinism.
The film starts with Amy Adams’ Louise Banks, a renowned linguist, cogitating about the perception of time. Are our lives just one long process that starts with birth and ends with death? Does each day add up to make up a life? Or is it defined by specific events: first day of school, graduation, first love, childbirth, marriage? As she ponders such deep questions, a brutally brief montage shows the whole life of her daughter, cut short in her teenage years by an incurable disease.
Louise is all alone in an empty house when the aliens ‘arrive’ unexpectedly (as if there is any other way) in 12 spaceships. The ships hover above ground like crescent moons. Are they observing? Planning to attack or merely waiting? Banks is tasked, alongside Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist, to work out their intentions.
Like Nichols, Villeneuve filters the sci-fi elements through a human lens. While the alien ships are up in the sky, undoubtedly containing mysteries and answers we can only dream of, Villeneuve’s camera is firmly pointed to the ground; finding the panicky, human moments below. University campuses become eerie ghost-towns, F-16 jets are heard – but not seen – screeching overhead, cars bang into each other. It’s a cacophony of sounds and flashing images that disorients without feeling melodramatic or ridiculous. Even the aliens cannot rattle or distract the director, in fact, you rarely see them properly as Villeneuve obscures them in fog – his focus lies elsewhere, and rightly so.
At times, when Banks is trying to figure out how, and more interestingly why, the aliens are communicating, Arrival feels less like a sci-fi story and more like a detective investigation. And just as a hardboiled detective isn’t shocked by a murder and immediately tries to solve it, Arrival isn’t distracted by the aliens’ arrival and immediately tries to work out why.
It’s genuinely thrilling to watch Adams’ Banks scramble to work out the alien language and you are elated when there is a breakthrough. The smallest misinterpretation of their language could result in the end of the world – constantly underlined by neurotic, hectic scenes of Russia and China’s scientists, who are conducting their own investigations and interactions with the aliens, going radio-silent and not co-operating.
There is a wider, societal question lurking here: is it really the aliens that threaten our very existence or rather is it our difficulty to work together that’s the real threat. How will we as a society, a race react. Will we work together or will the demons of national borders and cultures override our better angels?
Mixed in with such grounded, real questions, are grander themes of fate, free will and deceptions of linear narratives. Is the world responding the way we are supposed to; did it ever have a choice or was it all predetermined? The answers come a tad too thick-and-fast at the end but, along with Midnight Special, Villeneuve’s excellent, intelligent direction and a very strong Adams performance means that Arrival completes a perfect sci-fi bookend to 2016. 4/5