It’s funny how the little things, or rather the enormous, epoch shattering events can sneak up on you. I confess to being somewhat shocked when the trailer for Arrival, erm, arrived a couple of months ago, I’m normally pretty good at keeping my finger on the pulse when it comes to new releases, particularly SF themed material given my penchant for all things alien attuned and otherworldly ouroboros. Instead this project was a total shock, especially the presence of rising star director Denis Villeneuve in the captains chair, given his growing stature in appreciation following last years compelling crime thriller Sicario. Challenging, thought provoking and intellectually compelling SF is difficult to detect in the current constellation of Star Wars and Trek clones, like sourcing a genuine SETI signal in the franchise fueled firmament, and while these pictures can be undeniable fun they rarely leave much lasting impression, relying more on the action orientated narratives of the superhero or action movie welded with a Science Fiction genre chassis. Arrival is another, taking off from the same narrative ground zero of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind nearly forty years ago – First Contact with aliens, and all that may entail for the human race. The approach to such a obliterating event in Arrival is intergalactically equidistant from the cartoonish carnage of, say Independence Day, this is much more in the vein of the smart, cerebral and considered, with not a single blaster nor dogfight in sight. It’s always interesting to consume these films whilst considering the paradigm of Science Fiction reflecting its era’s beliefs and fears, we’ve recently seen a burst of material such as Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian and Midnight Special which are ultimately optimistic and progressive, unlike the communist menace of the 1950’s, the saviors of E.T., Starman, CE3K of the 60’s to the 80’s, or the paranoid conspiracy of the X-Files 1990’s. More recently the post 9/11 uncertainties of War Of The Worlds, Minority Report or The Hunger Games series seem to have been in the ascendant, and like those films Arrival speaks to a prevailing sense of anxiety, a global malaise which seem more prescient by the day.
Based on the admired short tale Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang the film opens with a live action version of that heartbreaking sequence in Pixar’s Up, except this time it’s linguistic professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams, brilliant) nursing and then tragically mourning the death of her young adult daughter. With the somber mood appropriately set Louise’s loss is swiftly overwhelmed by an epoch shattering event – twelve vast interstellar objects have arrived at various unconnected sites over the globe, their presence and purpose a total mystery. Given her past terrorist intercept & translation security clearance Banks is recruited by the stern Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join a specialist team, tasked with initiating contact and establishing the alien interlopers intentions, alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly whom is played by a a perpetually perturbed Jeremy Renner. Every 18 hours the craft open to admit the humans who desperately attempt to establish a common communication channel, a sense of urgency adding flames to the fire as global panic and anarchy begins to sweep across the globe, and suspicious world governments of the non-American sort start to saber rattle as their populations demand assurances. So far, so conventional from a lot of SF material, but this is much more situated in the Contact, Stalker or Solaris constellation of screen science fiction, treating the material with an equal weight, with a philosophical and psychological fidelity which is rare for such an outrageous premise. It’s all too easy to reflect current events on cultural artifacts such as movies which are conceived, filmed and finished months and years before they are released to the public, but you can’t escape the fact that Arrivals is oozing with anxiety from every pore, from Louise’s bereaved psyche to the impending sense of some global apocalypse, reflected in the films palette and iconography which broods with blacks and grays in the ascendant. The SFX and CGI work is absolute first class, the arrivals feel glutinous, ghastly and simply not of our ecosystem in a completely convincing fashion. I won’t go further for fear of spoilers other than to say the design smacks of a Lovecraftian fever dream dredged from the deepest chasms of the Marianas trench, in one of the most compelling intellectualized movie species design since H.R. Gigers’ 1979 nightmare fuel.
Some years ago I read that the native American Indians had a philosophy and society based around a circle, this shape representing the strongest point of their understanding of the world around them, being equally tensile around every point of its 360° axis. It was also the circumference of the tepees they erected and called home, and it also represented the now rather trite sounding ‘circle of life’ chronology and repetition of the seasons, the return of the life-giving buffalo every spring and summer to their valuable hunting grounds, and apparently the Greeks were also in on this vibe. I’m not sure why I’m sharing this but it was one of the thoughts that struck me when the contact between species gains some traction in the film, and when any creative work begins to raise fundamental questions so eloquently on our species, on our customs, hierarchies and manipulation of the physical dimensions around us, on our language, the tenses we use and our perceptions of time and temporal space I have to consider the film as working genuine wonders. The portions of the film when our creeds full intellectual rigor is pressed into such a monumental task as deciphering the otherworldly cryptography are just wonderful, brilliantly cut and spliced with a deft montage voice-over, and you initially begin to query why Villeneuve is inter-cutting these efforts with Louise’s memories of her daughter, until the two strands collide in a supernova brilliance during Arrival’s final annihilating masterstroke.
Unlike this laugh-fest which I simply have to read I like how a lot of SF these days – heh – seems to play in the unstable arena of the quantum, of probing at the nature and omnipotence of time, whether it is running out or refracting back on itself, which is another of Arrival’s sub-nuclear narrative cores. Just to switch gears a little Renner is the best he’s been in more of a supporting role, Whitaker plays the Colonel with his usual hulking and dour concern, but Amy Adam’s is phenomenal as the core character cluster, the simultaneous terror and trance-like wonder scattering across her face in a fully realized and deftly balanced performance. There are a few small niggles, as wouldn’t the use of the canary in the coalmine tool be a little threatening for a first contact meeting guys? Demonstrating how we capture and exploit our fellow species? That might not look so good, even if its accurate. There is also a fairly obvious piece of explosive plot foreshadowing which is a little rushed and under-cooked, and perhaps the film loses a little focus in the middle section as to how much time is being spent formalizing the joint language, but Arrival is still smart enough to sidestep other clichés such as the suspicious paranoid CIA lackey (Michael Sthulberg) or the one dimensional aggressive military Colonel. Both are here in form but avoid there respective genre traps, both play their parts with a little more consideration and nuance, willing to give the scientists a limited benefit of the doubt that they are the best chance for success. It’s funny, I’ve been musing over the film for a couple of days now and I’ve realized that it’s also lifting intentionally or unintentionally from Cameron’s The Abyss and even, most amusingly, various manipulations in a most excellent journey.
I just loved how the film handled the genuine, psychological shredding impact of genuinely making first contact as presented in the film, the bewildered and terrified faces of the scientists, civilians and military brass, devastated on both a global and personal level – I loved the throwaway moment of earlier witnesses being lead off the camp on gurneys, with Weber muttering ‘some people just can’t handle the situation’. The traditional approach we know is the whole celestial look of magical awe, the upturned camera, swelling score and slow push-in to reveal the beatific saviour beings, but that paradigm is deeply inverted here, as the humans attempt to process just what this seismic event means for our very species, as we are challenged on every established belief structure over the past couple of millennia. The monolith was a device that Clarke and Kubrick arrived at for 2001 – yes I’m going there – them both realizing that the very concept of inter-dimensional entities, trillions of years in advance of our puny apes just could not be realistically represented on-screen using the cinematic effects of 1968, leaving them seeking a conceptual solution of representation instead. Through discussions they arrived at an algorithm of form and visual semiotics which is simultaneously esoteric and faceless, unknowable and impenetrable, qualities which all are wrapped up in our shared perception across creeds and cultures of that silent, indestructible slab. Arrival makes a good stab at taking this forward, the film has one of the best realizations of something genuinely ‘alien’, of creatures utterly divorced from our evolution, atmosphere and geology that I’ve ever seen, and that alone is a major achievement beyond the usual CGI cudgels we get these days. The implications have also been carefully considered and thought through, the effect on the planets delicate geo-political landscape, and the seismic sociological and cultural tsunami that would sweep through every creed and religious ideology propel a sense of things falling apart and decaying with a terrifying rapidity, yet still struck through with the emotional thread, the beating heart of the picture which rests on Amy Adams significant shoulders.
Eric Heisserer deserves an Academy Award nomination for the script from a design perspective, it nestles on page and screen like a palindrome, so further re-watches are definitely in order and I have heard even stronger praise from those whom have already indulged. Although it bows to the conventions of exposition voice-over to convey information, and there are a couple of dream feints how the filmmakers manipulate the very cornerstones of how you parcel and transmit information, of how the interpretation rests within the ear of the beholder and their expectations and conditioning, its in the space between those two concepts that Arrival descends. This is where form meets story, clearly Heisserer has done his research into the semiotic difficulties of communication with entities that may even have a conception of language as we understand it, their process of cognition, their mastery of physics, they way they even approach time is brilliantly queried, and whilst avoiding spoilers these ideas are stitched into the fabric of the film in a truly revolutionary fashion. – language itself has a formalizing intellectual structure, deciding how the discourse is programmed into the psyche of others, a lesson we could all learn given the nauseous events of last week. If you think that’s gobbledygook then I haven’t even grazed the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or other queries that the film conveys – how do we, think we can / are successful in understanding bees or ants for example? What about communicating with primates or Dolphins?
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal and unearthly minimalist score perfectly complements Arrival’s scale and subject matter, harnessing that oscillation from the epic to the intimate which seems to be Villeneuve’s forte. Apparently he’s been signed up for the Blade Runner 2049 musical duties which must be quite a formidable task, given the influence and adoration of Vangelis’s original mastery. I’m immensely encouraged to see a film of this intelligence and sophistication on multiplex screens, especially one which has the confidence to manipulate the very building blocks and engineering of how cinema works, of character perspectives and how a movie can manipulate time, all of which speaking to the central themes and lyrics of the story. Villeneuve has been slowly growing in appreciation after Sicario (I really want to get my hands on a copy of his rare, expensive to source Polytechnique) and with this achievement he has firmly been implanted as one of the filmmakers to closely follow, with this picture he has singlehandedly obliterated any remaining concerns I had about that sequel, and I hear he has his sights on a Dune remake which has detonated an ultimate nullifier of excitement in my SF sanctified soul. I am slightly hesitating, my fingers hovering over the possible use of the word ‘masterpiece’ as I think any piece of work needs some space to breathe, to establish itself in the lexicon and see how it evolves with age. Nevertheless I’m close to that level of praise, and have no doubt that future revisits will yield deeper treasures, from the oubourous opening and ending shot selection, through interrogating its deeper structure and design, and how Arrival’s conception and execution marries its thematic intentions – even the title holds a potent metaphoric charge. Are we advancing as a species? Do we deserve to? Arrival suggest we will, because we exist, and if we exist then we have a potential, despite all our flaws and foibles. We can sacrifice and struggle, and face the void which comes to us all in the knowledge that our ability to adapt and grow might be sufficient, and potentially unique in this incomprehensible universe of ours – now that’s an interesting theory. Language and communication serving as empathy projections seems to be a priority to avoid annihilation these days, both at a personal and geo-political level, so in that light I’m electing this as my film of the year;