Are we alone in the universe? That is a question humanity has asked itself for eons and it’s been addressed in countless sci-fi films. Denis Villeneuve’s latest movie, Arrival, examines the first contact story from a fresh new angle.
One day, 12 spacecraft land in 12 different locations around the world, from Montana to the Pacific Ocean near Australia, to Shanghai. When the military seek to communicate with the beings they approach Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – a world renounced linguist – to figure out a way. However, as Louise starts to make progress, the stress of the mission takes its toll on everyone involved and while she advocates peace, other forces – led by General Shang (Tzi Ma) of the Chinese Army – prepare for war.
Arrival is one of the most richly thematic films this year, taking a realistic look at how the world would react to aliens coming to Earth, operating brilliantly on both a personal and cerebral level. It also pulls off a magnificent trick of being an intimate story while showing the wider social impact of the aliens coming to Earth.
In recent years there has been an increase ambitious yet realistic sci-fi films. Interstellar was based on the theories of Kip Throne and was praised by Neil deGrasse Tyson; last year’s The Martian focused on how a man could survive on Mars using his scientific knowledge and limited resources. Arrival shares a lot with Interstellar, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact in its slow-burning intensity and heavy philosophical motifs.
The main focus of Arrival is the struggle of communication: how will humanity try and communicate with the aliens and also manage to communicate with each other. At times, Arrival comes across as a linguistics lesson – as Louise breaks down the basics of language for everyone: breaking down the constructs of a sentence, the precise meanings of words and even the method of delivering a message. It sounds like it could be dry and dull, but everyone involved in the movie is able to elevate the emotion, especially Amy Adams’ Louise. If The Martian was a celebration of science and survival, Arrival celebrates language and communication.
Alien contact movies are often about the evil conquerors of Earth or the beings having some ulterior motive. Arrival‘s approach is to show how the world would actually react and what scientists do when studying the aliens – from the precautions they take, the monitoring and the long process of research they can conduct. It’s an arduous process and it has a physical and mental strain on the scientists investigating the aliens. They have to work round the clock for months.
The world Louise and her colleagues inhabit is a bubble. They focus on their research, governmental pressure and geopolitics. As audience members, we get hints of what’s happening in the wider world through news reports showing the global societal reaction. There are glimpses of the wider world through news reports and phone calls to family members – showing the panic and protests. It’s a great snapshot of the world as we see it through the eyes of everyone in the scientific outpost.
The personal elements come from Louise’s relationship with her daughter and how it impacts her work. Like Interstellar and Contact, familial relationships play a large part in the narrative. There is also a spectacular twist in the middle of the movie that should take many by surprise. In retrospect, there were clues about the reveal, but Villeneuve does expert misdirection with the audience.
Icelandic composer and regular Villeneuve collaborator, Jóhann Jóhannsson gives Arrival a haunting score, using synthesized sounds (and the roars and growls of the aliens are particularly ominous). As well as getting Jóhannsson, Arrival has the excellent composer Max Richter to create the opening and final tracks for the movie.
Although Arrival has so much working for it, the biggest weakness is its cinematography by Bradford Young. It employs a strangely dark and murky style – but it makes the movie ugly to look at and, at times, hard to see what’s happening: made worst because many of the rooms have minimal lighting. Despite this Arrival is, overall, a fantastic take on a First Contact story. It can stand alongside many greats in the genre because of the focus on characters, realism and complex themes.