Mankind’s unfathomable place in the universe has been one of the central preoccupations of (good) sci-fi cinema since Méliés shot that rocket into the moon’s eye in 1902. There’s something about the way the camera is always looking outwards, always probing, that makes it perfect for investigations of an otherwordly nature.
Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’ arrives very much in this vein. It’s a first contact movie of rare intelligence, contrasting throughout the panicky nature of people’s reactions to the unknown, and the rare and touching nature of an individual coming into contact with something “other”, and profound. It proves quite true the maxim from another very different sci-fi film, ‘Men in Black”, that “a person is smart, people are dumb”.
An heartbreaking introductory prologue establishes Amy Adam’s linguistic professor Louise Banks as a grieving mother, probable divorcee, a woman with her job and, we sense, not very much else, at least not any more. One day she turns up to lecture to a sparse room of panicky students; something isn’t right. It turns out that twelve spaceships have landed at disparate points over the world, and the planet is in turmoil. Villeneuve uses these early scenes cleverly, playing up the pandemonium of the arrival in a series of largely silent (bar the looming ambient score) shots of expressionist beauty. A grey crowd mills slowly but determinedly across a car-park; a reversing car hits another; jets roar across the sky ominously.
It all has the feel of a disaster movie, reminiscent of the dread of William Cameron Menzie’s ‘Things To Come’, as opposed to, say, ‘Mars Attacks’. It’s not long before Louise is contacted by a sullen government Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker, perpetually between rock and hard place), and asked to translate the alien’s language. This is one of the many little elements I adored about this film; it respects academia, and it trusts the experts.
Louise reluctantly accepts, and it’s not long before she’s being carted off , along with Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, to a field in Montana to try and communicate with the ship. This is where the film, and Villeneuve’s intuitive feel for disquieting visuals, really come into play. The ship, shaped like a black egg, looms monolith-like over everyone (think 2001, DoP Bradford Young clearly did). In the road leading up, civilians camp out like they’re at Woodstock. Military tents maintain a respectful distance. The camera is constantly framed at shoulder level behind Adams; the perfect framing to get a sense of spectacle for yourself, and also within the character’s perspective (it’s a trick Villeneuve returns to frequently, like the refrain of a sprawling jazz solo).
From here the film fractures into a dual tale of one woman’s brush with the unknown, and a devastating study of military panic. The film places an undue focus on international relations, with screens presenting a live-feed from the different countries with contact to the ship. There’s talk of China taking an aggressive approach to the aliens. Colonel Weber talks ominously of his superiors. People in Anonymous masks loot shops and graffiti walls.
Yet once Louise and Ian are in the ship, none of this matters. Villeneuve intentionally contrasts the anarchy of the outside world with a stillness inside the black womb-like interior of their vessel. The ship is a feat of cinematic imagination that, I predict/hope, will endure in the same way the Nostromo, or the arctic base in The Thing endure as great cinematic interiors. And I won’t ruin any more of the plot, except to say that Louise realises she’s dealing with matters less extraterrestrial, and more metaphysical.
About half the credit must go to Adams; she is certain to be Oscar-nominated. Initially convincing as a focused academic, the film chips away at her surefooted exterior, and Adams reveals emotional platitudes that, if played five degrees the wrong way, could have upended the entire film. She maintains total control of mannerisms and movement, and her presence anchors the audience in this story. We invest in her because we believe in her, we want her to succeed, we understand her plight.
What we are left with, aside from a towering and awe-inspiring piece of cinema, is a message of hope. As Louise’s backstory reveals itself, and as we find out the true nature of the arrival, a rare thing happens; we become humbled. This is a film I cried a great deal in, principally because of the strong emotional beats, but then later because I realised that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer were creating a paean to the human race, underlining our utter worth, and how we transcend basic humanity through our capacities for empathy and emotional depth.
I hate to ascribe a political meaning to a film, mainly because it’s easy, cheap, lazy, and reveals internal biases of the reviewer that should remain hidden for the review to be taken seriously. And I don’t think there’s an explicitly political meaning here, although some may go looking and find it (the talk of “aggressive aliens with unknown motives” is hard to ignore). Nevertheless, these are turbulent times for people on all sides of the political spectrum, and a film like this is an absolute necessity, as a tonic. As divisions make themselves more and more evident in society, a film which peddles the belief that we can save ourselves by simply facing the unknown with a brave face and both arms outstretched must be embraced in kind.
This is a masterpiece of technical and emotional film-making that will hopefully go down as one of the great sci-fi films. A little like the alien pods, it lingers over you, casts a shadow, and you are drawn to it.