‘a beautifully shot, well acted, and thoughtful science fiction movie‘ – Hugh McCabe on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival
Science fiction seems to be having something of a moment right now. On TV we’ve got lavish new SF-themed dramas such as The Expanse and Westworld. In books, we have novelists like Jeff Vandermeer and Cixiun Liu making waves beyond the usual genre ghettoes. In cinema, as well as creaking bloated event pictures like the The Martian (2015) and Interstellar (2014) we have had a slew of sleek smart offerings such as Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special (2016) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015). Making a decent science fiction movie is not a simple trick to pull off. As a film-maker, it’s easy to come unstuck with ill-advised forays in this direction, particularly when a large budget is involved. Tarkovsky and Kubrick managed it with aplomb, but it almost buried David Lynch’s career. Alfonso Cuarón’s much acclaimed Gravity (2014) was in retrospect a pretty tedious affair: a film that would have been better if they had left out the script, shot it as a silent movie, and shaved an hour or so off the running time. It was all the more disappointing given that Cuarón’s previous effort was Children Of Men (2008), a stunning film that seems more and more prescient with every year that passes since its release.
Easily the most anticipated science fiction film on the horizon right now is Denis Villeneuve’s Bladerunner sequel, which is due to drop some time in 2017. Consequently his new film Arrival, his first foray into SF-territory, can’t help but seem like a dress rehearsal for this main event. Villeneuve is an accomplished director who, like Jeff Nichols and Jacques Audiard, is capable of making mainstream studio-style pictures that are both serious-minded and entertaining at the same time. Not an easy trick to pull off either. He is also adept at not just hopping between genres but also poking at the limits of those genres to push them in unexpected directions. Enemy (2013) is surely the weirdest and most baffling paranoia drama of recent times and last year’s excellent Sicario (2015) took the basic template of the US-Mexican drugs cartel thriller and imbued it with an aesthetic sensibility that is rarely found in something that is otherwise a bog-standard action movie.
Arrival follows this modus operandi by starting off as the well-trodden aliens-arrive-on-Earth story but then gradually revealing itself to be about something else entirely. The film stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by the US Government when aliens suddenly appear in giant dolmen-like spacecraft. The reclusive extra-terrestrials hole themselves up in their ship and Banks’s job, in partnership with physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), is to go in there and try to interpret their language in order to find out what it is that they want. Before we get to this however we see a montage that, to the mournful strains of an extract from Max Richter’s Blue Notebooks, depicts the birth, life and death of Banks’s daughter, the relevance of which does not become apparent until much later. The arrival itself is treated as a profoundly world-changing event. The spacecraft in the US is only one of 12 that have materialised around the globe and, in an atmosphere of rising tension, all governments are scrambling to try and find out what the significance of their appearance is.
The core of the film concerns itself with Bank’s efforts to establish some sort of lingua franca with these puzzling visitors. The aliens are giant squid-like creatures, housed behind glass, and floating in a dank murky soup. Initial attempts at communication prove fruitless and it is only when Banks discovers that their language is diagrammatic in nature, manifesting itself as circular patterns of squirted black ink, that the real theme of the film becomes apparent. For Arrival, in spite of its futuristic trappings, is based on a very old idea indeed. This is the structuralist notion that language is not merely a means of communicating with others, or of articulating our own thoughts, but is the actual thing that structures our consciousness, the mechanism by which the world is made available to us. When we learn a new language it subtly shifts how we experience the world. If I learn 50 words for snow then gradually I begin to experience snow in a richer and more complex way. But what happens if, as happens to Banks over the course of the film, the language I learn is that of the radical Other, the alien? How might this affect my consciousness – the way I perceive and experience reality? What if the aliens experience time in a non-linear manner? What happens if, as Banks is asked at one point, I start dreaming in their language?
Arrival, which is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, trades in the same sort of biological post humanism that animated Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant Southern Reach trilogy (itself the basis of a forthcoming movie from Alex Garland). Both explore the limits of what it means to be human and how the transgression of these limits might involve equal parts wonder and horror. Perhaps predictably, Arrival emphasises the first side of this equation more than the second, and it is somewhat let down by the mawkish treatment of the subplot involving Banks’s daughter and the growing bond between the linguist and the physicist. One might also object to its tiresome sense of US exceptionalism (of course it’s the Chinese and the Russians who blink first). But maybe this is all to be expected from a $50 million Paramount pictures production. When your actors start appearing on Graham Norton’s couch it’s obvious that there is a lot riding on your film: it’s expected to do a bit more than just impress audiences on the festival circuit and do respectable business on iTunes and Netflix. Villeneuve, to his credit, manages to negotiate this particular tightrope pretty well. Arrival is a beautifully shot, well acted, and thoughtful science fiction movie. It deals with intriguing questions but does so through the vehicle of an engrossing and well crafted story. In the end though the aliens simply function as a mechanism for exploring some distinctly human concerns. How can we bridge seemingly unbridgeable communication gaps? How do we learn to accept our own mortality? Consequently Arrival comes across a little hesitant to fully explore its own implications, perhaps because it is reluctant to alienate its potential audience. Villeneuve needs to be bolder if he is going to make a decent fist of Bladerunner 2049. He needs to show us things that we won’t believe.