FilmNation Entertainment, 2016
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
In director Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi feature, the aliens do not arrive in flying saucers, but in levitating granite coffee beans of leviathanic dimension. Twelve appear in various locations the globe over, hovering impassively just a few yards from the ground, from off the west coast of Australia, to Sierre Leone, to Russia. The geographical spread appears random, with the only explanation offered being that they are all “places where Sheena Easton had a hit in 1980”.
As ever, the genre film’s gravity of significance is in the United States – this time over the plains of Montana, captured in gorgeous misted beauty by Bradford Young (lately announced as cinematographer for the untitled 2018 Han Solo anthology flick). After a brief tussle with pragmatism, US Army Colonel Weber begrudgingly enlists the on-site aid of linguistic professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose farsi translations in a previous assignment they’d found impressive. After being rudely scooped up by a helicopter lunging by in the dead of night (more invasive than the aliens, really), she joins theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in their new objective to figure out why the newcomers are here, what it is they want, and if they can do so before the Chinese get too far in teaching them the belligerent vocabulary of mahjong and generally making a mess of things for everyone else.
If the story so far sounds clichéd, this is because I have been facetious. Like most good science fiction tales, the plot withholds on the aliens for a bit, instead opening with a short summary of a child’s life – Louise’s child – from her birth to her premature death (the Atlantic puts it on an equal level of heartbreaking to Up as a prologue. Not quite). Though initially we assume the purpose of this montage is to convey Louise as a grieving mother, whose personal tragedy will help us better understand her motivations and actions to come, the lost daughter ends up being not a backstory figment, but the crux of the entire narrative. As Louise leads the way in bridging the communicative and empathic divide between human and alien (wrestling constantly with clench-jawed camouflage suits and utter exhaustion), images of the child float up in a fugue of memory and hallucination. These flashes into a time of innocence (by the lake, kissing her to sleep) occur often enough and coincidentally enough to foster the hunch that – somehow – they are key to unlocking all of Louise’s breakthroughs.
When we do encounter the aliens, it is on their own terms. They have assigned specific ‘visiting hours’, during which a square chute from the base of the ship opens, and some quirk of physics enables the humans to walk vertiginously up. It’s here that the story’s most rapturous visuals and heavy-handed symbolism exert themselves – the envoy carrying with them a chirruping canary in a cage, and the aliens (there are two of them) appearing literally through the mists.
Who knows why really, but the group dub the aliens Abbott and Costello (the ’40s comedy duo, not the goons out of conservative Australian politics). Huge, grey, thick-hided things, they seem a sort of hybrid between arthritic hands, mangroves and squid. Though these ‘heptapods’ seem to be eyeing the humans behind the transparent wall that separates them, they have no distinguishable optic organs, and for most of the film, we only see their lower half. To throw out lines of meaning that the earthlings can understand, they thrust forward a splayed starfish-like tip from one of their seven arms and eject a inky, gaseous substance. These coil smokily before them in coffee cup stain-like riddles.
It is a complex splat. As usual (and this time, reassuringly), the aliens are packing a lot more in the brains department than us bipedals. Instead of the tiresome linearity of full sentences, their logogrammic mode of writing is non-linear, with meaning encased purely in concepts rather than sound. In the space of a second, they are able to articulate the contents of a vast set of ideas: an entire history, an entire philosophy, an entire database of Clinton emails (well, probably). In a puzzle box ruse in which hides a nice little twist, the film evokes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that language informs the very structure of our brain, thereby altering our fundamental experience of reality.
Is it that clever though? A thesis challenge for an Honours student perhaps. In an interview with Slate, real life linguist Betty Birner is good-humouredly dismissive. “They took the hypothesis way beyond anything that is plausible,” she says, laughing at Ian’s ‘re-wiring your brain’ claim as “silly and false”. On the other hand, she gives credit to the film’s engagement with the notion of time as ‘cyclical’ – which was “really central in Whorf’s writings”, and relatively unfamiliar to a western mind, which takes a more objective, concrete view of its passing.
The film’s moral lesson of the importance of openness and trust resonates at other areas of plot too. As the rift between alien and human interlocutor narrows, geopolitical tensions ratchet, access channels are shut down, and citizens the world over enact stock variations on hysteria. Religious cults self-immolate, looters scurry through cities, and right-wingers gargle nastily at a disgusting softie government that isn’t even prepared to waggle a gun in the direction of a threat. Some of the bile ends up pooling in the ears of military grunts at the Montana camp – and from the hate-speech goadings, a direct line of cause and effect is drawn which leads to the only scene of violence in the film.
Resolution comes swiftly after the film delivers its twist (wise). Though we can still nurse enmity with the Russians, the Chinese are reformed from uptight world-destroyers to twinkly-eyed abettors of justice and universal peace. I’d be more cynical if the novella on which the film was based (the Nebula award-winning Story of Your Life) wasn’t written by an American of Chinese descent. Still.
On the Tsarkovsky to Spielberg spectrum (with langorous pacing, ‘big philosophy’ themes, and cerebral heft lumped on one end, and frenzied action and feel-good gimmicks on the other), Villeneuve’s work has more a Tsarkovskian thing going on. As repeat collaborator Johan Johannsson’s eerie layered loopings tremble at nerve endings throughout (the likes of which we can expect to hear more of in the upcoming Bladerunner reboot), the audience finds themselves shifted ever more into attitudes of thoughtful sobriety. Well, a kid died and the world could’ve ended. Apropos.
Logical potholes aside, Arrival is an elegant and captivating film, which can comfort itself in knowing that it stands in a class of its own to Interstellar. Serene yet never dull, it contemplates how the ways in which we articulate the world shape the ways in which we understand it, and the manner in which we move through it, together. Sharing ourselves – whether it’s through sharing information rather than safeguarding it out of jealousy, or through sharing how it is we feel instead of keeping it locked in out of fear – turns out to be requisite our humanness, and our humanity. A timely message, it would seem, sloping as we are towards an increasingly hostile ultra-nationalist future, and where the risk of losing ourselves through the cracks of our own self-made divisions mounts higher.
The message is prefigured and tucked into plot crannies everywhere. When Louise and Ian first meet in the helicopter, Ian says something to her. The communication is lost at first; she doesn’t have her earphones on. When she does put them on, he repeats himself, and it turns he is/was quoting a line from a book Louise wrote: “language is the cornerstone of civilisation”. He calls it a lie (“it’s science”, he corrects); Louise downplays it a packaged, smart-sounding idea that everyone already knows. If we are to accept the film’s lesson, both of them are wrong.