It’s always a tough decision. Do I buy a ticket to yet another dystopian, futuristic, science fiction bleak house of a film? Last year I bought one for Ex Machina, which caught me by complete surprise. Armed with that memory I decided to take a chance on Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
The carefully crafted screenplay by Eric Heisserer is based on Ted Chaing’s vignette, Story of Your Life, published in 1998 and winner of several prestigious writing awards. Mr. Heisserer spent years going studio door to studio door, reworking the script at each turn. It was finally picked-up by 21 Laps Entertainment. Good call ladies and gentlemen.
Arrival stars the always cerebral Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a world renowned linguistics expert who, thanks to a hypnotic opening sequence appears to be damaged goods. She teaches at a university and is annoyed at how on this particular morning the cell phones of her students keep interrupting her class plan. All for good reason. Twelve bean-shaped massive crafts have descended from space and are hovering just above ground across the globe.
In short order, Colonel Weber, played with earnest calm by Forrest Whitaker, shows up in Dr. Bank’s office on campus with a recording of the voices from the beings inside those beans. She’s recruited along with Dr. Ian Donnelley (Jeremey Renner) a scientist, to enter the craft and try to communicate with the heptapods, labeled for each having seven legs.
Most of the film is about the process of trying to record and decode the heptapods, named Abbott and Costello by Dr. Donnelley. It is a arduous process that requires patience. Something the politicians and military leaders don’t have. The filmmakers inject bursts of how the other eleven sites are progressing around the world, as well as military-political aspects are influencing the mission.
Predictable world chaos ensues. People panic. The military overreaches. Countries collaborate at first, but over time mutual distrust causes them to drop off the grid, keeping their growing lakes of data for themselves. As if that will save their way of life, while others are eliminated by the current disruptors.
Despite all those side stories the filmmakers need to deal with, they make ample time for the real stuff. Arrival is about learning, communication and above all understanding. Dr. Banks insists on focusing on the the basics to build vocabulary and understand syntax to avoid dangerous confusion later on. She and Ian work together and slowly decode the heptapod’s language and begin to hold primitive dialogue. Mr. Heisserer’s script demonstrates her reasoning.
Her persistence and instinct is recognized by Colonel Weber, who allows her the space she needs to make a connection. Over time she removes her hazmat suit and lets them see what she really is.
The most interesting scenes in the film involve Dr. Banks’ encounters with the heptapods. She is able to show them she’s serious and respects them. Their speech is meaningless, but when they write, it’s art, poetry and meaning integrated in circular symbols. We realize that all new things require building blocks. The present cannot understand the future without them. In a way, Arrival is a parent / child relationship story. The heptapods and humans play both roles in order to make the connection and understand each other’s basic objectives.
Watching Arrival propelled me back to many other films that fall into this category. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. All thee films explored this fascinating and important theme of being an earthling in a world where there are non-earthlings. What if we’re not alone and what would happen when we found out we weren’t?
Arrival takes it a step further by intertwining the heptapods with the psyche of Dr. Banks, who has unusual powers of intuition for a human. Those gifts (or not) led her to make some decisions in her life which cast her into an relentless unhappiness. In the end she finds her compass and so do the heptapods. Each of their missions can be considered, for now at least, a success. It’s only the beginning.
The technical aspects of this picture are excellent. Ms. Adams stands out for her courage and ability to manage this overwhelming situation. The soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson is hard to listen to outside the context of the images of the film. Works on screen, but is a bit repetitious.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s original score can be heard on Spotify.
I would recommend this picture not only for its cinematic craftsmanship but as a reminder that we live in a vast and mysterious universe. It helped me move beyond the hype-moments we see today.