What Is The Purpose Of This Movie?
“The premise is that aliens are landing in places that make no sense, and nothing is happening. The world is freaking out… I love that” – Denis Villeneuve.
“I was in love with the exaggeration of reality or exploration of the world from a different point of view, which is science fiction” explains Denis Villeneuve.
When the French-Canadian director admits that “it’s tough to find good science fiction material,” at least he has tried – and succeeded – to rectify this matter in the intriguing form of Arrival, the sort of thought-provoking SF that rarely gets the big-screen treatment.
Based on Ted Chiang’s novella: “Story of Your Life” – a “highly scientific, not inherently cinematic” work – twelve massive, shell-shaped spacecraft appear in the most unlikeliest locations around the world. And the race is on to find out What They Want.
On a university campus, comparative linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks, (played by Amy Adams), realises that constant low-flying jets and a collision in the car park signify that this is turning out to be no ordinary day.
After learning about the Breaking News of the Century – strangely enough on an HD TV, not via smartphone – the Prof is soon whisked away by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to Montana where the USA’s very own extraterrestrial representative has chosen to hang around.
There is no explanation as to why a section of the craft opens up every eighteen hours, or how this arrangement was initially achieved but, nevertheless, a palpable sense of wonder ensues.
“…At the end of the day, it’s a story about a woman and her child, and the choices she makes. That’s really interesting to play in a sci-fi movie about communication and global war” – Amy Adams.
Why are they here, indeed.
For the central role, Adams puts in an engaging performance, one of intimacy and empathy, managing to elevate this material from the depths of absurdity to which it could so easily have sunk.
And despite its disturbing nature, the gradual unravelling of international tensions actually makes for compelling viewing.
Perhaps the most enthralling scene is the intrepid hazmat squad’s literally breath-taking ascent into the spacecraft, and their conversion to a vertical gravity. One discrepancy and all the guests would hurtle back/down to terra firma!
The visitors referred to here as “heptapods” appear and dissolve in mist behind a transparent screen. They reminded me of the tentacled martians as depicted in The War Of The Worlds; the whale-like sounds they emit are particularly haunting.
“Abbott and Costello” – how charming! Why do we see just two of them? …And we didn’t get to find out why they each have seven legs, either.
“I didn’t think it would look as big and expansive as it is. We’re in a black box. With a white screen and a hazmat suit… It emotionally wrecked me” – Jeremy Renner.
What a relief that Arrival spares us the eerie and stereotypical dramatic scenes of the alien armada ominously approaching Earth. Quite unlike more standard alien invasion flicks –gadzooks! They’re here already! An unsettling touch if ever there was one. And it is not – hallelujah! – an invasion anyway!
Such a welcome cavalcade of subtle ideas: scientific, cultural and – oh yes! – linguistic. Part of the fascination for this movie centred on wondering how Villeneuve et al would bring it to a satisfactory denouement. Had expected a twist, but on a non-linear level? Heavy, baby.
Ultimately, its stark themes convince us that this film is not about the aliens, but about us: the complicated bipeds. In attempts at First Contact, these proceedings instead invoke that inherent inability to effectively communicate among our own species. Not only does communication (and co-operation) break down, in this hi-tech age, it gets switched off!
As one news reporter rightly remarked at one point, whatever benevolent need our visitors require, why do they come in twelve ships, when only one would have sufficed?
It is startling to realise that in that cramped and bustling army camp in Montana, Dr. Banks is the only major female presence. Really?!
It is almost miraculous how she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) crack the intricacies of the alien non-linear orthography in unbelievably short time and in such stressful geopolitical circumstances.
Thankfully, this film is more engaging than Interstellar, and undoubtedly light years more worthwhile than Independence Day: Resurgence.
Perhaps Arrival’s greatest asset is that, in a world increasingly tearing itself apart through social unrest and breakdowns in diplomacy, it could not have been released at a more apt time…