[Note: This is a re-post of our review from the Telluride Film Festival; Arrival opens in theaters this week].
Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners), to this point, has been a frustrating director for me. Frustrating because his films have always shown a delicate craftsmanship, but the final product never coalesced into a film that was equal to the visuals, score and pacing that Villeneuve had shown complete mastery of. Prisoners‘ eloquent visuals colored suspicion in every corner of a suburban street but was undid by a script that over-relied on red herrings. Sicario couldn’t commit to its vantage point of a bewildered DEA agent and instead switched to the hitman at the climactic point for tidy answers. In these films (and in his Canadian productions), Villeneuve was a director that I knew would eventually make a film that would floor me. He obviously had all the tools, but his visual construction was beyond the texts he was working with. Fittingly, with Arrival, a film all about language between alien species and worldwide miscommunication, Villeneuve has free reign to decode an entire universe of language with visuals. And it’s a monolithic achievement.
Arrival is a spiral helix of information, but to keep that looping staircase a surprise this write-up will barely engage with plot. And despite how intricate the story feels during its runtime, its ultimately a film that will require multiple viewings. But the visual poetry will pull you through into an exciting, brave new world of ideas about global construction, and the Tower of Babel that has kept us from perfecting a worldwide construction. And perhaps keeps us from being capable (right now) of engaging with another civilization.
In basic terms, 12 black, oval alien pods appear one day in 12 distinctly different parts of Earth. In the USA, it’s a field in Montana. Others appear above the Black Sea, in Shanghai, Denmark, etc. The world, for the first time, attempts to work together in direct communication about this event. A feed is set up with scientists and armies all around the world to share information that they are receiving from these alien pods. In Montana, an army colonel (Forest Whitaker) recruits a renowned linguist, Dr. Louise Brooks (Amy Adams) to attempt to teach the two black heptapods constructs of English to be able to ask them their intentions on Earth and decode their language. Dr. Brooks shows more bravery in making direct contact with the beings (separated by a communication wall on their ship) than any of the armed men who keep a safe distance. Eventually a scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), joins her in direct contact, thus forming a duo of communication to the dual beings.
In an early scene, the Colonel chooses Dr. Brooks as the proper linguist because she has a more thorough definition of “war” from sanskrit than a colleague of hers. Her contemporary translates the Hindu word as “an argument”, and she offers the more complex (and correct) definition as “a desire for more cows”. This is extremely important because as each country begins decoding the aliens’ language, each country interprets the alien messages differently. Some see specific words as a threat, some as a gift, and as the governments begin to disagree with the meanings of these messages, different factions form, and some go offline from global communication completely. Our inability to communicate efficiently on a global scale creates a schism and the US base races to understand the beings before a domino effect begins from oppositional countries.
Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer very wisely include how communication off base—via news and telephone calls to loved ones—further disrupt patience on base. Patience is key for the film as well. Anyone expecting major actions might be disappointed, but anyone ready to unpack major ideas will be thrilled. Arrival is not a thrill ride, but it is perhaps the most necessary science fiction film of this decade. It involves modern concerns of a global disconnect the more connected we become. And it involves forward-thinking ideas of the concept of time and how our survival as a species might not come on the plane of existence that we’ve known for thousands of years.
For a film about language, Villeneuve smartly relies most on the cinematic language: cinematography, production design, visual effects and musical scoring. His collaborators flex some of the best work of the year in every cinematic realm. The interior of the pod is influenced by the lighting space of a famous James Turrell piece, except instead of shifting color gradients from warm to cool, it is a constant black and white. The heptapods emerge from a fog and communicate with ink that emits from their long legs, and this stylistic choice of being allows for the visual effects to play with liquid and cloudy elements to keep the aliens just enough in the foreground to look incredibly real.
Cinematographer Bradford Young gets to go handheld, up close and personal for Terrence Malick-inspired views from Dr. Brooks’ memory and the intimacy in this motif provides many visual clues that will aide her language decoding pursuits (and break your heart). And frequent Villeneuve scoring collaborator, Johann Johansson, creates a chilly atmosphere without making us scared. In fact, every area of Arrival, from the main actors to the crews mentioned above, work exquisitely together to maintain an atmosphere of constant discovery instead of dread and fear.
The maintained feeling of discovery is where Villeneuve deserves so much applause. Arrival is very exciting because it is a sci-fi about ideas and interpersonal communication. Even when it engages with a type of conflict that we’re familiar with, Villeneuve only uses sound and a detached viewing from above. We are so attached to the researchers and their methods, we want them to be able to do all their work devoid of violent conflict.
Arrival makes us care about each discovery and less about what conflict might impede it. It’s truly a game-changer for modern science fiction.
Arrival opens nationwide on November 11, 2016.