Director: Denis Villeneuve / Screenplay: Eric Heisserer (from novella by Ted Chiang) / Editing: Joe Walker / DP: Bradford Young / Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cast: Amy Adams / Jeremy Renner / Forest Whitaker / Michael Stuhlbarg / Mark O’Brien
Dr. Louise Banks: THIS is Your Life!
Arrival started life back in 1998, as a novella entitled ‘Story of Your Life’, written by American Science-Fiction author Ted Chiang. The wheels usually turn slowly when it comes to adapting material for the screen and Chiang’s work was no different, taking almost twenty years to make it.
With the rights & budget acquired, the producers commissioned screenwriter Eric Heisserer to attempt an initial draft. In this case, that’s harder than it sounds, given the opportunities afforded by the material’s embrace of novel theories; some of which, are as arcane to the average viewer, as those proposed in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). That he was eventually rewarded with an Academy Nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, is testament to Heisserer’s skill and sensitivity towards the source.
Arrival collected eight Oscar nods that year, including Best Picture and Best Director. However, in a tough year dominated by La La Land (2016) and Moonlight (2016), it would only win for its Sound Editing. So profound are Chiang’s Big Ideas however, that I think it’ll be Denis Villeneuve’s film we’ll still be talking about, once the big winners are forgotten; if only for the skill with which he smuggled them into the film. After all, it’s dealing with a central question that’s both simplistic and profound: If you knew the future, but were unable to change it in any way, would you still want to know?
Around that, Arrival is dealing with the arrival of extra-terrestrial beings in Mankind’s ‘First Contact’, but Villeneuve is less concerned with the impact the event would have on the people of the Earth, than he is in exploring Chiang’s original conceit. As you watch, it’s easy to forget about the wider-world and what must be going-on beyond the cordoned-off Landing Zone, which is just as well for a film with a modest budget. If you want spectacle in your alien invasion movie, may I direct you to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996)…
Villeneuve’s film opens with a carefully edited sequence of Amy Adams living in an elegant lake-house, that’s shot in a desaturated and under-lit palette. But for a new baby, she’s quite alone. We then see the baby as a growing girl and finally, as a young woman dying in a hospital, from what looks like cancer. The decision to open with this bold montage sparked two questions from the off. First, why is there no father-figure around? Is she a young widow? Divorced? Client of a sperm bank? All that, from the singular absence of a man. Just goes to show, that stereotypes are all the more powerful when they’re overturned!
Second, when we hear Adams’s VO say ‘There are days that define your story and your life: like the day they arrived’, the sequence gives-way to scenes of her walking into work as a linguistics professor. We’re looking at her drab appearance, combined with the sustained muted tones, courtesy of DP Bradford Young and we’re left
wondering concluding that all we’ve just seen Happened in the Past; that it’s nothing but context for what follows. Having now seen the film twice, I’m impressed at how easily Villeneuve is playing with our expectations. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the storyteller’s book, yet it’s working here.
Adams’s class is evidently smaller than usual. One by one, her loyal students start getting text messages on their phones and ask her to switch-on the classroom’s TV. It’s real: alien spaceships have landed in twelve locations around the world… To break the spell, Villeneuve has the school’s klaxon sound: it seems class (as we know it) is dismissed. Villeneuve’s very good at catching the little moments as things unravel. In the short stroll out to her car, Adams is both startled as a pair of fighter jets scream overhead and witnesses a minor car accident as people panic to get home. In such minor, incidental details, he’s telling us all we need to know; if plot is an onion, he’s taking his time to peel-away the layers.
Once home, her loneliness and isolation are reinforced as she watches the TV news. This is the greatest development in human history, but she’s got no-one but her neurotic mother to talk to about it and only a meal-for-one to look forward to. She might very well be the last person alive: a view reinforced the next day, when she returns to an utterly deserted college and retreats to her office to watch more TV: she’s got nothing else to do but embody Abba’s ‘The Day Before You Came’.…
A word here for Adams. Despite sparkling performances in Junebug (2006) and Enchanted (2007), I’d seen her in very little until Arrival, so to see her master such an inwardly-focused role as this was a revelation to me. That she’s got the chops is of little doubt, for here is a woman convincingly drawn and modulated in Adams’s hands. I believed who she was & that she did what she did. Adams was perfectly cast, it seems – which is just as well, given she was the producers’ first choice. The script needed a consciously un-showy performance from all the key players if it was to work and credit to Villeneuve, not only for recognising that, but in drawing out such great work from his leads.
Whilst in her office, Adams is now visited by an Army Colonel Weber, played by the mercurial Forest Whitaker and he’s great to watch, even with the dial turned-down on his performance: here is someone ‘on the inside’ trying to make sense of what’s happening, yet remain professional on the outside. He wastes little time in coming to the point: he asks if Adams – or Dr. Louise Banks as we now learn – would like to join the effort to understand and communicate with the visitors. Banks declines. Weber’s then off to meet a professional rival to offer him the gig, but as he’s leaving, Banks suggests asking the other candidate if he knows “the meaning of the Sanskrit word for ‘war’”.
That night, Weber returns to the house in a helicopter; the sound designers getting a fantastic reverb out of its thundering blades. Banks meets Weber on the stoop, who reports thus: “‘Gavisti’. He says it means an argument. What do you say it means?” To which Banks replies: “A desire for more cows.” As a result of this, Banks gets the gig, but it also gives further insight into her character: where a man sees conflict, Banks sees a different interpretation: and this film, if it does nothing else, hinges on interpretation.
Aboard the chopper, we find Jeremy Renner playing Ian Donnelly, a theoretical scientist who’s to help decipher whatever it is that a linguist such as Banks might reveal. The film’s third major star, Renner is, along with Whitaker, content to play second-fiddle to Adams – sorry, Banks – and I can’t actually remember the last time two male co-stars supported a female lead: can you? Hopefully, we won’t have to wait all that long for another to roll-around…
Before Banks can work her magic however, we need to see the ship. Villeneuve sets this up with a beautiful revealing shot, taking a POV from above and behind the chopper and spanning a wide, green valley bordered on one side by an escarpment, from which mist is rolling down. In the distance, dwarfing the pop-up village of olive-drab marquees, is a gigantic egg-shaped form in charcoal-grey, that’s hovering some thirty feet off the ground on its ‘pointy’ end. Villeneuve sustains the shot as we get closer and with the first rays of morning sunshine striking its surface, it looks unlike any ‘alien’ ship I’ve seen on-film before. It’s wilfully unadorned. Other films lurking in the ‘realistic’ neck of the First Contact woods, have lent an equally gritty look to the visitor’s ship: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) is an obvious comparison, but sacrifices the grandeur of Villeneuve’s presentation for a ‘nuts & bolts’ aesthetic.
No sooner have they arrived, than a klaxon sounds: it’s time to suit-up and pay a visit to the main attraction; turns-out, that a hatch opens-up every eighteen hours and the klaxon is a signal. This is Villeneuve suggesting a link back to Banks’s college: one klaxon sounds the end of something; another, to usher-in the new. While we’re on the subject of sound, I should also mention the fabulous score by Jóhann Jóhannsson; a bright talent who passed recently and who’s contributions will be sorely missed in years to come. Here, his work is bruising, intense and brooding with impact.
Once suited-up in bulky, realistic-looking ‘Haz-Mat’ suits, our heroes are driven-out to the underside of the ship and mount an innocuous cherry-picker that will take them up to the hatch. What happens next surprises us as much as Banks & Donnelly, for rising above the open hatch is a vertical shaft, rising up a hundred feet or so and capped with a pale screen or panel. Yet this is only an illusion, for human visitors must jump up and out of the cherry picker. Rather than fall to the ground below, they find themselves within a localised gravitational field, in which the shaft now becomes a corridor; its sides, now a floor, ceiling and walls. The ‘screen’ at its far end, is more like a window beyond which, concealed in a misty, bespoke atmosphere, are the alien visitors themselves: seven-tentacled, squid-like beings. Again, these are unlike anything previously seen on-film: no mean achievement for Villeneuve and his creative team, who must’ve struggled against the subconscious influence of other, culturally significant, Hollywood aliens.
Subsequent visits, has Banks turn to scrawling words onto a whiteboard, before deciding that wearing the suit is more of an encumbrance than protection. She peels it off, to reveal her true character to the visitors; another act of rebellion, but Banks knows instinctively how it’s got to be: and Donnelly joins her.
Back at camp, Weber questions her approach in using basic vocabulary, that leaves the big questions unanswered, which is Villeneuve’s cue to introduce basic concepts of linguistics and study how a basic question (i.e. ‘What is your purpose here on Earth?’) can be broken-down into its constituent parts, in a search for depth & subtleties. This is important, given that progress is finally being made. During their last encounter with ‘Abbot & Costello’ (as Donnelly has named the aliens), Banks placed a hand on the window and one of the visitors responded, by placing the tip of one of its tentacles against its other side; splaying a circular array of digits protruding from its tip, prompting Banks to say: “Now that’s a proper introduction!” Time passes. As Donnelly and Banks’s time with the ‘Heptapods’ increases, they begin to decipher their unusual written language, that’s expressed as ‘logograms’; abstract ‘blotches’ spaced around a solid ring and ‘projected’ against the window like a giant ‘Etch-a-Sketch’, that’s quickly erased and rewritten.
Kudos to Adams & Renner in these scenes, for reacting to a blank wall with such conviction, as well as Villeneuve for having persuaded the film’s producers to build both the shaft and inner-chamber for real. As the camera pans, the cool ambient light plays-off the ridges in the dark surface, making it look as if hewn from a huge block – a solid mass of ‘worked’ material like stone. It’s an astounding effect, augmented by the flat, neutral accent given the human’s voices as they speak. By design, there’s no echo here, so when the aliens ‘speak’, with deep, guttural rasps and booms, their sheer volume overwhelms.
As understanding grows and things look positive, Villeneuve allows external pressures to intrude once again on two fronts. First, a disgruntled soldier initiates an Unfortunate Incident, that drives the ship beyond the reach of the cherry-picker. Second, the video-wall showing feeds of collaborating scientists around the world is cut, as countries withdraw contact. The reason? At the moment of the Unfortunate Incident, Costello projects a full-set of logograms, that’s apparently repeated – and photographed – in each of the twelve ships. One faction led by China, believe the data comprises a weapon, but Banks sees it another way: which is where Act Three takes a sweeping turn towards the strange, in a semi-mystical twist delivered with a calm surety last seen in a Terrence Malick picture. All I will say in comment on this, is that things aren’t always what they seem; it’s often a case of interpreting stuff in a different way…
We live in a world in which the laws of ‘Cause and Effect’ operate, but the Heptapods come from an elevated dimension, in which there are ‘variational principles’ governing their perceptions of time and the physical world. The best way I can explain the idea, is to imagine the planting of a seed as the beginning of the process and its flowering as the end. Variational Principles seeks to imagine – and explain – everything that happened in-between, but it only works if you’ve a beginning AND an end-point.
Determinism’s in there, too. The idea that – as Banks realises – what will happen, WILL happen. That’s why she makes makes the life choices she does, after the visitors are gone; she chooses to experience life’s ups and downs in a way that was denied her past existence: ironic, that it took an event as big as this, for her to see it… In a way, the alien visitors are a mere catalyst for Banks’ emotional life.
Problems? I was frustrated by the film’s limited outlook and scope, as much as I was impressed by Villeneuve’s disciplined interiority. That, and the lack of momentum. When seen dispassionately, little actually happens in the film. The Heptapods leave behind only their language and a sense of unity sorely lacking before. All momentous in their own ways I grant you, but you’ll be disappointed if you came here looking for action. Set-aside the film’s weighty concepts and seismic shifts in the common consciousness and there’s a hole at the centre of Arrival.
Sometimes, even the worthiest of ideas need a little levity to push them from being merely ‘great’ into becoming wondrous. In Arrival, that push never met sufficient shove. It’s the film equivalent of a Polo mint. Suck hard enough and the hole in the middle just gets bigger, until there’s nothing left…
Still minty, though.
Language is the foundation of civilisation. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.