ArrivalNovember 18, 2016
Anyone who enjoyed Independence Day (1996), or some similar tale of alien invaders trashing Planet Earth, would be well advised to give Arrival a miss. For those who feel an evening’s cinematic pleasures to be incomplete without two full hours of Armageddon, Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral, atmospheric sci-fi flick will be a massive disappointment. For the embattled minority that prefers a movie to engage the imagination rather than the central nervous system, it will be an equally massive relief.
The theme of aliens arriving on earth is one of the most well-worn routines in the science fiction repertoire. Do they come in peace or hostility? Will they reveal the secrets of their advanced technology, or see us as vermin to be exterminated?
Even when they profess peaceful intentions it seems that aliens can’t be trusted. Think of the sneaky, double-crossing types from Planet X in Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965). At other times it’s humanity that refuses to behave properly. Klaatu got some rough treatment in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and E.T. hardly had the red carpet rolled out. A small number of variations on a theme have been rehearsed again and again.
Few aliens have been so obdurate or so patient as the nameless beings in Arrival, who land their spaceships at twelve locations spread around the globe. These vehicles resemble Marea Gazzard sculptures – dark, smooth, featureless, with an appealing hint of texture. They hover above the ground like obelisks, while the armed forces of many different nations wait anxiously for the next move.
When attempts to converse with the extra-terrestrials prove fruitless, the government turns to none other than Amy Adams, playing professor of linguistics, Dr. Louise Banks. Together with physicist, Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise will attempt to get the visitors from space to answer the billion dollar question: “What is your purpose?”
Before she is conscripted by a grumpy Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), we already know a lot about Louise. The film begins with a rapid sequence in which she watches her daughter grow into a teenager who is struck down by a rare form of cancer. We see the story in the form of a flashback, shot with the dreamy vagueness of Super 8, to fizzing, ambient music supplied by Icelandic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Adams imbues Louise with a sadness that attaches itself to every conversation and deed. Even as she strives to crack the puzzle of the aliens’ language she constantly finds herself thinking about her daughter.
Villeneuve allows the tension and mystery to build as we get closer to the moment when Louise and Ian are taken inside the spaceship to confront the aliens, who resemble giant squid – “heptapods” – appearing and vanishing in a fog on the other side of a transparent screen. When Louise shows them words in English they respond with a jet of black mist from a tentacle. It forms a circle in air that looks like a Zen ink painting. This is their language, but it follows a completely different set of rules to the languages we use on earth.
The narrative slows down to a crawl as Louise and Ian try and decode the alien symbols. Frustration may be growing among viewers longing for a double dose of CGI carnage, but it is also growing among earthlings in the movie. Shock jocks are stirring up fear and anxiety, people are rioting and stockpiling supplies, foreign powers are losing patience. China is inclined to view the enigmatic visitors as trespassers, and issues an ultimatum. The decoding proceeds amid the looming threat of disaster.
The feeling of a lack of progress may be intentional but it creates passages where mystery gives way to sheer dullness, as Louise’s blue-eyed melancholy infects the entire film. Much of the drama centres on two fundamental but complex concepts: language and time, but the pervasive interiority of the story will feel tiresome to audiences more attuned to action than philosophy. The breakthrough seems to happens almost miraculously, as if Villeneuve had become nervous about prolonging the ordeal.
As an intellectual exercise, Arrival is not as confusing as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), but considerably more complex than Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It is not until the very end that we understand the significance of the aliens’ language, and get an inkling of their greater purpose. We also realise what Louise meant when she said, at the beginning of the film: “There are days that define your story beyond your life.”
Villeneuve has given us a movie that lingers in the mind long after we’ve left the cinema, partly because we are still unravelling the plot and working through its the implications; partly because of Adams’s haunting performance in the lead role. Instead of the usual Hollywood triumphalism that comes with victory over impossible odds, we are left contemplating the value of communication and co-operation.
At a time when aliens have arrived in the White House and deep divisions have opened up in the fabric of American democracy, this strange, meditative film should strike chords among a weary electorate longing to escape the madness of everyday life.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Heisserer, after a story by Ted Chiang
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
USA, rated M, 116 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19 November, 2016