Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.
If aliens landed on our planet, how much time would we allow for communication issues before assuming malicious intent and pushing the buttons on our biggest weapons? Countless films have asked this question, dating back to early sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). But Denis Villeneuve’s stylish and meditative Arrival (written by Eric Heisserer and adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story ‘The Story of Your Life’) is unique in showing how hard it might be to painstakingly decipher the language of another species.
Arrival begins with a dreamlike sequence, fast-forwarding through a mother’s memories of her child: clasping the newborn’s hand; seeing the little girl run and laugh; and then watching her sick and dying in a cancer ward. Grandly melancholic and shot with extreme shallow focus reminiscent of Terrence Malick, this sets the intimate tone for a film that’s miles away from your average alien invasion adventure. The mother, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is a gifted linguist and world-renowned translator. These memories of her daughter will haunt her even as she’s trying to communicate with creatures from another galaxy.
Conscripted by the US military’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise is whisked out of bed and transported by helicopter to a misty Montana field, where one of the twelve alien spacecraft has landed – or more correctly, it hovers just above the ground like a monolithic black cocoon, hollow in the centre, with its own low gravity field. Teamed up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, Louise is tasked with trying to question the aliens about their purpose. Ian is excited at the prospect of talking math with them, but Louise, in one of her delightfully no-nonsense put-downs, suggests they start with ‘Hello’.
Where so many films assume that aliens clever enough for space travel would quickly learn English or develop translation tools, Arrival probes the idea that the language we speak shapes our very thoughts and our ways of experiencing time and conflict. The possibilities for misunderstanding are momentous. ‘Weapon’ and ‘tool’, for instance, are dangerously close in meaning but worlds apart in consequences.
"The real tingles in Arrival come from the awe we experience in the encounters with the Others."
There’s great tension generated here in the race against the clock – the peace-loving scientists working to beat the trigger-happy impulses of paranoid world leaders (China, of course, though the story transcends easy racism). But the real tingles in Arrival come from the awe we experience in the encounters with the Others. An intense vocal and instrumental score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson sets off starkly beautiful visuals by cinematographer Bradford Young. Comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey are inevitable and well-earned. But the real revelation here is Amy Adams, who shines in these scenes, battling with the heavy claustrophobia of her Hazmat suit, and clearly terrified by the job at hand and the crude tools at her disposal (a whiteboard and markers no less!). The film lets her tremble even as she’s demonstrating extraordinary empathy and courage.
With films like Incendies (2011), Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), Canadian director Villeneuve is a director able to transcend genre demands, combining action, atmospherics and intelligence. It’s a combination fans hope he will bring to the Blade Runner sequel due in 2018. With Arrival, some viewers may be frustrated by the film’s unhurried pace and metaphysical leanings – and admittedly, some final twists may challenge even the most ardent admirers. But it’s a thoughtful, beautiful film – intimate and yet ambitious – and well worthy of the awards season buzz it’s currently generating.
Arrival is in cinemas now.