Although in 2016 the science fiction genre will be best remembered for the debauchery known as Independence Day 2, a certain film arrived without much fanfare but reiterated the fact that not every alien invasion needs CGI lasers and patriotic protagonists to entertain the audience. That film is Arrival and continues the director Denis Villeneuve’s impressive run of cinematic masterpieces since his English feature of Prisoners in 2013. In Arrival, the director creates a personal story that explores the current cultural climate between science and humanity, without disregarding the importance of communication as the ultimate tool we hinge our societies upon. Upon seeing Arrival, it should be regarded as an important milestone in which science fiction films has evolved over the last decade and bodes well for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, in which Villeneuve is also directing.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s ‘The Story Of Your Life’, the film center’s around an academic linguist in trying to understand an alien language after twelve extraterrestrial vessels appear in various parts of the world. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are hastily recruited by US Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker) who are in a global race to decipher the alien’s intentions before other nations progress in their attempts. Split into two halves, the first hour of the film sets up the tense first contact with the aliens, before a slower yet more rewarding latter half in uncovering the alien language. Much of the plot is cleverly construed as a thriller but is more akin to a character study as we find out later in the film, that Banks is the key to the film’s theme. There are generous amounts of exposition, but enough tension to keep the audience on the edge of their seats as we ponder the increasing global unrest in these aliens occupying the different countries. In one short (and frighteningly real) scene, we get an Alex-Jones type character ranting off on how blowing the aliens from the sky is required. Given the distrust of governments around the word, this is certainly a subtle commentary on our own political climate. It illuminates the readily use force as a justification for humanity to defend their fears without a better understanding of the situation on hand. Much of the film is centered around this concept and that the idea of language has kept society civilized as much as possible.
The strengths of this film are unparalleled. Amy Adams put in a tour-de-force performance as Louise Banks, as we become acquainted with her intelligence in decoding the aliens form of language. The director also adds softness and hints of sadness to her character, as we learn that her daughter had seemingly died earlier on and Banks is now alone in her distraught existence. Although Renner’s Ian Donelly doesn’t have much to do throughout the film other than a support character, he is incredibly guile and adds much-needed levity in the interactions between Banks and the Colonel.
The excellent film score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who has collaborated with Villeneuve previously, is omnipresent throughout the film and adds a rich texture alongside the sweeping cinematography. In the opening scene of the film, we get a Michael Mann minimalistic type of shot of Bank’s home. This is accompanied by Max Ritcher’s majestic On the Nature Of Daylight, conveying an introspective loneliness and immediately informs the audience what this film will be about.
Opening scene of Dr. Bank’s house from Arrival. Contrast the frame shot and colour palette used with the introspective scene of De Niro in Michale Mann’s Heat.
The vertical window frame encompassed by darkness in the background gives the impression that the home is a jailhouse of emotions, one which encompasses Dr. Bank’s feelings of depression and loneliness with the loss of her only child.This scene is given more depth on retrospective inspection as we learn that the closed entrapment of her home is actually a representation of the audience and Banks closed understanding of the world at first thought. We later learn that the open blue sea actually represents the philosophical journey that both Banks and the audience would soon go through, in understanding the film’s key message. This message can be simply stated as: to what extent does free will affect individual choices if we no longer perceive time as a linear concept. This scene alongside ‘flashbacks’ to Bank’s daughter, showcases the development of the director’s prowess to set up the film’s theme without resorting to crude exposition scenes or heavy-handed imagery which lesser directors would have resorted to.
Another impressive acumen Villeneuve exercises in Arrival is the camera work and lighting throughout the film. Malickian camera pans are used purposefully at the beginning where we see Dr. Banks walking away from the camera with her back towards us in motion the whole time as though she is confused to her existence. There is also a beautiful camera sweep where we first see the alien ship and the surrounding military camp adjacent to it. Lighting is also put to good use where scenes of surrounding military, alien contact and dreams are dimly lit to signify the unease and fear of the situation, whereas scenes with Banks interacting with Donnelly and her daughter are brightly lit to show the contrasting freedom and happiness of her predicament. The best way to describe the film’s competence compared a film of its caliber like Interstellar, is that Arrival does a better job in invoking mood through the sum of its parts. This alone makes it a grandeur of cinema that has emotional sway like no other sci-fi film has done since Speilberg’s E.T.
Despite the near perfection of the film, a few flaws do stand out throughout the film. One aspect is the CGI of the film, which could be best described as cartoony in some parts. Another issue is the ending of the film where Mandarin somehow finds its way to being an integral part of the film’s plot with the somewhat rushed ‘denouement’ on why the aliens have come to earth the first place. Some of the audience will be confused, whilst others will feel a bit short-changed at the lack of pacing to reach the overall conclusion. A minor quibble I have with Arrival is that unlike Villeneuve previous works, he does not leave an ambiguous ending which has almost become a stable part of all his English films.
Given the complexity of the theme and uttermost care in direction of the film, Arrival is undoubtedly one of the best sci-fi films made in the last decade. It has the intrinsic qualities that all great sci-fi films have, which is the exploration of humanity through its setting. With Villeneuve’s precision and softness, Arrival goes beyond a commentary on today’s society but exists as a touching character study of Banks who will suffer great loss throughout the course of the film. Her journey is a representation of what we would all go through – the choices we make, the opportunities we take despite their consequences. On this note, Arrival is an inspirational film that will last the test of time.