We are, it seems to me, living in a great day for science fiction movies. Rather than solely having to subsist on massive, operatic space battles (which, don’t get me wrong, can be great), we also get thinking science fiction. We get movies that ask what it is to be human and whether that’s changing. Movies that ask, at least pseudo-scientifically, what it might be like to be the sole inhabitant of another planet, and now a film that asks what might happen if aliens actually arrive and neither we nor the aliens instantly start blasting.
This last entry is the new film from director Denis Villeneuve. “Arrival,” which features Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner, is quite a feat. Its focus is the obvious language barrier that occurs when 12 alien ships land here on Earth.
Adams’ Louise Banks is a linguist and finds herself brought to the one spaceship which landed on U.S. soil by Whitaker’s Colonel Weber. Working with scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner), Banks puts together a plan to communicate with the beings—which resemble an octopus but with only seven legs—and at the same time has to explain to the military (and therefore us) just why she is approaching it in the manner she has chosen.
It is the back-and-forth between Banks and the aliens which is the single most fascinating aspect of the film. She is ushered into their ship, which has its own gravity setup, and finds the aliens behind this clear wall, emerging through mist. Not only does she nearly keep her cool, but she actually manages to make headway and does so despite the location, odd schedule the aliens maintain, and constant questioning but her supervisors who are anxious for answers.
“Arrival” is perhaps best describe as intellectual filmmaking. It definitely has an emotional aspect, one which I would argue is the single weakest element of the film (particularly the movie’s postscript), but it mainly keeps the viewer at an emotional arm’s length, delving into process and progress, not feelings. And now that I’ve said that, I’ll walk it back a little – there is definitely an emotional core (hence the ability for that postscript to exist), which is why the movie opens with the sad story of Banks’ daughter, but it is feeling that is deeply wrapped inside thinking. Villeneuve walls us off from emotion, much in the same way as Banks.
The pacing is no small part of this either, the movie is at once both urgent and slow. Whitaker and the government need to know what is happening with the aliens – why they are there, what are the other ships telling people in other countries, what do the aliens want. Banks, though, won’t be rushed… can’t be rushed. For her, the process of learning to speak to the aliens is going to take as long as it takes, there is nothing that can be done to make it happen more quickly.
As the movie methodically approaches its conclusion, and as Banks learns to communicate with the aliens (which come to be known as Heptapods) more and more effectively, the sense of urgency only grows. Perhaps it has been slowly building from the beginning, but as the conclusion approaches, the tension—which exists on multiple levels—is palpable. By the time the whole thing ends, the viewer simply wants to go back and watch it all from the beginning to see what they missed, to see if it all makes more sense, and to wonder at everything from the beauty of the sound design to the structure of the ship to the great performance given by Adams.
With “Arrival,” Villeneuve takes this big idea—the arrival of aliens—and strips it down to a couple of core questions, making it something small and manageable and just as important. Added to it then are some fine actors realistically portraying what the experience of a scientist in that situation might actually be. The result is a film that makes one think, makes one wonder, and makes one question just how poorly our world would actually react in such a situation.
We are, I repeat, living in a great age for science fiction, and “Arrival” will standout as one of this age’s best entries.
photo credit: Paramount Pictures