There’s a scene in Independence Day: Resurgence where the human heroes awaken a new alien lifeform that some online wags euphemistically dubbed “the Siri Globe.” Within seconds it learns English and starts spitting out exposition because human language is “primitive” and really director Roland Emmerich wanted to get back to blowin’ stuff up real good. Most alien contact movies, even the smart ones, don’t like to get dogged down in process because showing scientists learning how to interact with aliens is not as interesting as the interactions themselves. But in The Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve comes along and says, “Yes it can.”
Based on Ted Chiang‘s short story, “Story of Your Life,” The Arrival is a thoughtful and patient science fiction film that employs the tropes and traditions of your typical alien arrival movie but it undermines them too because this alien story is not about the aliens, it’s about people. Specifically Amy Adams‘ Dr. Louise Banks, who is your usual Hollywood chosen one scientist, the one person who can make sense of everything, but in order to do that she much also make sense of herself. The thing is though that audience has to figure it all out along with her, which makes The Arrival more engrossing than its rather clinical looking trailers seemed to indicate.
Like numerous other sci-fi movies, the action begins with flying saucers hovering over 12 different sites around the world, some are in the middle of nowhere, others are over major cities, and one hovers gentle over the India Ocean off the coast of Australia. Scientists can’t make heads of tales of why the aliens chose those places to loom ominously, but Banks is part of team put together by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) including physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlberg) to board the alien craft hovering over a mountain valley in Montana and determine the aliens’ intentions. Teams of experts around the world are doing the same, but there’s already hints of tensions mounting.
Although the socio-political stuff is always going on in the background, and is actually fairly important to the plot later on, the focus of much of the movie is on process, how do you talk to someone if you have no language in common? How can you make them understand you? How can you understand them? Where do you even begin? It’s fascinating when you break down a simple phrase like “What is your purpose here?”, like Louise does in the movie, just how much there is to understand in terms of context and intention, forget about even having to explain the pronouns. Think about when you started to learn the rules of English grammar, you at least new how to use “you” before going into its technical place in the language. I appreciated the way Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer laid all that out when most sci-fi movies just switch on the universal translator.
In the background of all this linguist porn though is the reaction to the arrival of the aliens in the broader human community. Of course, it’s been done before, but a movie like Robert Zemeckis’ Contact seems almost like it’s too much about how the freaks and weirdos lose it with the revelation of alien life, not to mention how it all went down through the filter of CNN. The one occasion that The Arrival deviates from science to extremism is does feel a tad over-dramatic and rather simplistic. It doesn’t really set it up in a believable way either, and it seems like the scene exists because the plot demanded that someone throw a wrench into the works. It’s unnecessary though because there’s actually more than enough dramatic tension in the intellectual exercise of inter-species communication.
In that effort, the onus is almost put entirely on Adams who not only has the technical dilemma of trying to work out communicating the aliens – a paid of black-coloured squid-like things with seven legs dubbed the hectopods – but there’s also a metaphysical dilemma as well as she starts to receive visions of some kind. Are these memories, dreams, a method by the aliens to communicate subconsciously? It’s done in an almost superfluous manner like the script is just trying to add background for Lousie’s character, but the genius of Villeneuve is in how he uses that as a misdirect. When it comes to The Arrival, you can’t take any detail for granted, and you can almost kick yourself for not seeing the twist coming.
The narrative skills of the director are matched by the team he put together including director of photography Bradford Young who shirks popular sci-fi cinematography trends and doesn’t desaturate the colours so that the orange of the hazmat suits pop against the interior of the alien ship, and the Montana exteriors stick out against the olive drab of the military structures that populate it. The sound design is also a key factor in the movie’s success, whether its establishing a whole spoken language that’s truly alien, or creating an atmosphere that can transition from unsettling to ethereal as we come to learn more about the hectopods. Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s score reflects that same arc, the music is more alien in the beginning of the film but by the end you hear the more familiar strings of a typical sci-fi film. It’s a subtle effect, but it’s handled beautifully.
And the film is beautiful, and not just a from a technical perspective. It’s touching in unexpected ways that aren’t overly sappy or sentimental like Contact, and there’s a human story underneath all the social commentary and technobabble that can’t be talked about explicitly without also talking about spoilers. What can be said is that the film’s resolution teeters on the idea that if you can see the future, and there’s a personal disaster pending, would you still follow “the plan”? Would you still take all the good things, the good times, even if you knew something very, very bad was going to happen? It’s a question that looms large over any human that’s thought about knowing the future, and The Arrival makes a compelling case for embracing inevitability.
The surprising thing about The Arrival is that thanks to its grounding in that simple human story, despite all the plot points about impatient militaries and the collapse of society, it’s far more emotional than its initial dispassionate temper would imply. The Arrival arrives at the perfect time, in the midst of a great deal of political uncertainty in America this week, and it tells us that in the wake of even the most unpredictable events there are still people who strive and believe in the very best of humanity. Even 10-foot tall squid-looking thingies know that human beings aren’t all bad if we can just find a way to work together. More than that it captures a true spirit of discovery, that in spite security concerns and paranoia about outsiders, there’s still room in this world to enthusiastically and genuinely embrace the unknown, and that matters. The Arrival is definitely great sci-fi, and definitely another notch in Villeneuve’s filmmaking belt