WHY ARE THEY HERE?
This is a glorious age for science fiction. Not only are we getting new entries in the Star Wars franchise that actually are worth our time and effort, but Star Trek is also alive and well as a concept, with new movies and an upcoming TV series. But the real reason to be excited about the genre is films like Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014) and now Arrival, movies that not only offer thrills but also so much food for thought and a wonderful curiosity for science. The last thing is even politically important now that America is about to have an administration that is intensely signalling a lack of interest and even contempt for science. This genre helps keep the curiosity alive.
Communicating with aliens
12 huge spaceships appear on specific locations across the Earth. Shaped like bent, black plates, they hover a few miles up in the air. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by army colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker) who wants her help to communicate with the aliens. She agrees and travels with the colonel and another expert, physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to rural Montana where one of the ships arrived. The first meeting with the aliens, who appear as two imposing, seven-limbed creatures (later nicknamed ”Abbott & Costello”), is an overwhelming experience for the experts.
The army wants an answer to a simple question: What is the purpose of their visit? But Louise realizes that trying to learn how to speak to aliens is fundamentally different than anything else she has encountered in her field…
Director Denis Villeneuve is perhaps the brightest new talent in Hollywood in years, able to create thrills on a grand scale, but also incredibly emotional stories. His fans will recognize Villeneuve’s interest in manipulating his characters’ minds as well as ours (this film is perhaps closest to his Enemy (2013)), and also his fascination with how devastating it is for a parent to lose a child (as he explored in Prisoners (2013)).
The film begins with beautifully rendered heartache, as we see Louise give birth to a daughter, raise her, fight with her as a teenager like all parents do, and then lose her to cancer in her twenties. This sad backstory shapes our understanding of Louise in the beginning, but in the film’s second half screenwriter Eric Heisserer provides us with a twist that elevates grief from the business of an individual to a uniting factor that could save the Earth from destruction. On the surface, there are elements in the movie that seem overly familiar and unremarkable. There have been many previous extraterrestrial visits onscreen before and a large chunk of the story is devoted to the predictable threat posed by how the military reacts. As expected, a country like China comes across as militaristic and a danger to world peace… but it is humanized later on thanks to Tzi Ma (incidentally, a dead ringer for President Xi Jinping) as the top Chinese military commander, who has an unforgettable moment with Louise in the film’s climax.
The intellectual content here makes us ignore the genre’s clichés and instead focus on deeper issues – how do we communicate beyond the languages we are familiar with, and what happens when our understanding of time is upended? Adams gives a terrific performance in the lead and her character is richly nuanced, unlike Renner and Whitaker’s.
Cinematographer Bradford Young keeps us close to Adams while shrouding the aliens and even Montana in mystery (perhaps because it was shot in Quebec); Jóhann Jóhannsson wrote a remarkable music score that isn’t easily approached, but a perfect, raw accompaniment.
Arrival 2016-U.S. 116 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, David Linde, Aaron Ryder. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay: Eric Heisserer. Story: ”Story of Your Life” (Ted Chiang). Cinematography: Bradford Young. Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson. Cast: Amy Adams (Louise Banks), Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly), Forest Whitaker (G.T. Weber), Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien.
Oscar: Best Sound Editing. BAFTA: Best Sound.
Last word: “I wanted to take a vacation from darkness. I had done ‘Polytechnique’, ‘Incendies’ … ‘Enemy’ was less dark, but then there was ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario’. I needed to get closer to a film that had lighter themes. For me, this is a film about mourning, but it’s still more luminous than the preceding films, which were quite dark. I saw it as a parallel film, not as part of a continuity. For me, it’s a film that I did to [get away from that].” (Villeneuve, Deadline)