Arrival is one of those rare big budget sci-fi movies that flirts with Hard SF. In a genre dominated by explosions and laser beams it takes some nerve to make a fifty million dollar sci-fi movie that doesn’t have a single action scene in it. Thankfully, there are still some risk takers in the industry. With a subversive approach to its genre, superb technical execution, an unusual narrative structure, and a subtle, yet evocative performance from Amy Adams anchoring the experience, Arrival deftly explores how language shapes both our world and ourselves.
When twelve mysterious spacecraft land at seemingly random locations around the globe, the U.S. government recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a professor of language, to help them communicate with the new arrivals. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise must crack the enigma of the aliens’ written word before mass panic and mounting political pressures force the world into war. This focus on communication rather than military attack sets Arrival apart from other examples of its genre.
The invasion narrative is so firmly ingrained that we take it for granted at this point. Films like War of the Worlds, Independence Day, and Edge of Tomorrow have dominated the box office (and by extension our pop culture) for so long that they basically represent the default state of being for a movie about aliens. We expect monsters, heroes, explosions, shooting, and a story about the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. It is a familiar, comforting narrative that Arrival strips away entirely.
The threat here is not external; it comes from within. The aliens take no aggressive action after they land, but their very presence throws the world into chaos. Faced with the unanswerable questions, “why are they here?” and “what do we do?”, authorities struggle to lead a world in the grip of panic. Normal citizens fight to horde resources, the streets are filled with rioters and looters, political pundits demand preemptive attack, religious groups scream about the end of days, military units are mobilized around the globe, and the world’s governments, fueled by old resentments, suspiciously guard what little intelligence they can glean. Rather than giving us the standard story about humanity’s ability to defeat any enemy, Arrival makes a powerful statement about the fragility of our world. Our society, with all its marvelous complexity, begins to unravel at the seams due to simple fear of the unknown. Human nature is our true enemy. It is within this chaotic framework that Louise makes first contact.
The moment, like the film, is tense. Though there has been no violence yet, the fear of violence is palpable. It is a fear we, the audience, understand perfectly. After all, we know what happens when aliens arrive on Earth. We’ve seen it countless times. Our expectation as an audience, fueled by our past experiences with sci-fi movies and the reaction of the civilians on the screen (who have presumably seen the same movies as us), creates a subtle intertextuality which begets pervasive onscreen tension. Free of the burden of showing us inter-species war itself, Arrival can instead leverage its technical resources to create an atmosphere which sustains this tension throughout the film.
The sets, sound, and cinematography together accomplish something that so many sci-fi movies fail to do: make the aliens feel truly alien. It seems like an obvious task, but it is commonly overlooked. In most sci-fi the aliens are either monsters or humanoid villains. In Arrival they are portrayed with ambiguity. Discovering their nature and intent is our heroine’s quest, and to that end, the film slowly immerses us in their environment, making us feel that sense of unease that comes with the unknown.
Each element of the film’s visuals and audio is designed to remove the audience from all that is familiar. The interior of their ships (called shells) are composed of uniformly black, rippled, unadorned surfaces. Ceiling, floor, and walls are indistinguishable from each other. The unsettling effect of this sterile environment is compounded by inconsistent gravity. Inverted shots and abrupt shifts in perspective disorient the audience by taking away even the most basic of our anchors to reality: up from down. The music is mostly quiet, but punctuated with startling, reverberating bass and brass which reflects and blends with the vocalizations of the aliens themselves. Lacking mouths and words, they instead sound like War of the Worlds tripods mixed with whale song, an unsettling combination which reflects their mysterious nature. Taken together, these elements provide a consistently tense atmosphere which enables the plot to explore subtleties of linguistics and thought that would otherwise be boring. It’s a good thing too. After all, this is a film about language.
Much of the conflict in the narrative surrounds the logistical difficulties of translating one language into another when you have no baseline from which to work. The alien language has no words. Their writing has no letters. Instead they communicate with mysterious, inky smoke rings. In the face of such incompatible forms of expression and thought, how do you convey the nature of a question? An abstract concept? The difference between an individual and a collective? While the film does a great job of outlining all these problems, it falls short when it comes time to solve them.
This is the only noteworthy issue with the film and it is why I mentioned earlier that Arrival only flirts with Hard SF. Arrival is a little too smart for itself. Film needs to be entertaining and easy to understand. The solutions to these problems are neither. Ergo, rather than showing us how Louise and Ian solve these problems, the film instead allows the breakthroughs to happen off camera and gives us a few lines of expository dialogue instead. In short, it commits the sin of telling rather than showing. In a film where the technical problems faced by the characters are so clearly outlined, not being privy to how the solutions were discovered is abrasive. Thankfully, there are only a couple scenes in the whole film where this happens, so this remains a minor quibble. In the grande scheme of things, the scenes aren’t truly necessary, and this is one film that is all about the grande scheme.
Arrival boasts an unusual narrative structure. This is the single most laudable thing about the film, so I’m not going to talk about it at all. I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll say only that the film’s structure affirms the power of language to define both society and the self, and I think the film deserves a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Moving on.
The reason this movie gets away with its unusual structure is Amy Adams. While I don’t see her bringing home any Oscars for this role, she does perform two essential functions incredibly well.
First, she provides the audience with a human baseline to relate to. Yes, every movie (especially sci-fi ones) need this, but considering how much effort the film expends to make the audience feel uncomfortable, its more important than ever here. She is genuine and believable in her situation and she prevents us from disconnecting from what is a purposefully obtuse film.
Second, her performance is subtle and ambiguous enough to enable the film’s narrative hi-jinks, but not so much that it becomes unengaging. This character easily could have fallen flat. Louise is a stiff, academic type who deals with technical subject matter in an unconventional narrative. The structure of the story could have overshadowed her, but it doesn’t. She is the beating heart of this film and she is why the emotional moments resonate when they arrive.
Arrival is one of those rare pieces of thinking man’s sci-fi that manages to avoid being…alienating for lack of a better term. Cerebral and emotional in equal measure, it masterfully weaves a touching human narrative inside a story about the power of language to shape our world and ourselves. A treat and a gem, Arrival is a welcome reprieve from the endless chain of vacuous boom fests that typify the genre.
On an unrelated note, who else is pumped for Rogue One?