Denis Villeneuve may not be one to reveal his secrets until those fateful final moments, but he makes his intentions clear from the start. As spaceships emerge from the sky at the outset of his latest film, Arrival, our focus is left fixated on the intelligent life watching this phenomena play out back on Earth. Despite the extraordinary nature of what they’re witnessing, expressions remain blank, belying a collective unease as people stare at their TV screens and begin to wonder; who are they; why are they here; what do they want?
For linguistic professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hired by a US government colonel (Forest Whittaker) to decipher the alien’s language with the help of mathematical scientist Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner), those questions are particularly pivotal. 12 ships have appeared in total, dotted across distinctively random locations around the globe, some hovering above cities, others over oceans. And tensions between opposing nations are beginning to grow increasingly fraught, as everyone tries to determine whether these extra-terrestrial visitors are friends, or foe.
From a distance, the spacecraft bear the form of magnificent monoliths, the oval shape and smooth exterior conjuring peaceful images of giant pebbles skimming across the surface of the stratosphere. As we draw closer, however, and become engulfed by the shadows of its dominant structure, our manner becomes more forbidding – accentuated through the frosty visual palette, and pronounced tones of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s rasping score.With a refined fluency, Villeneuve weaves his picture into the very fabric of the genre; giving gestures to the past – references to Robert Wise’s Day the Earth Stood Still, and Kubrick’s 2001 – as well as nods to the present – early scenes sharing the same guttural accent as Glazer’s Under the Skin, while the aliens themselves, with their Octopod appearance, are reminiscent of the titular creatures glimpsed in Gareth Edwards’ Monsters.
As you would expect from a filmmaker so fiercely intelligent and fearlessly idiosyncratic though, Arrival holds greater levels of mystery and insight than initially meets the eye; much more than just smart sci-fi. Unable to forge an unmediated attachment between herself and the aliens, Louise instead attempts to establish a verbal interplay consisting of rudimentary words and phrases that she hopes will eventually allow the two species to converse clearly. But it isn’t long before dialogue begins to get lost in translation.
Shifting the focus squarely on to our own race, Villeneuve proceeds to lament with lyrical melancholy on the threats we face from our own species. Convinced that the alien’s actions are growing more hostile, the Chinese general (Tzi Ma) mobilises his troops, with other nations – including Russia – following suit. And soon mankind finds itself in the midst of a worldwide blackout, unable, and moreover unwilling to communicate at a time when universal cooperation is vital for our survival.From within the darkness, Louise remains our beacon of hope, Amy Adams’ performance shaped with a solemn, sustained strength that’s regularly stressed in DP Bradford Young’s expressive use of close-up. As the international community continues to tear itself apart, Banks’ mind remain’s fixed on the job she was enlisted for, using crucial memories of her past to help inform her current thinking, and possibly prevent a global conflict.
Cerebral contemplations on our innately untrusting attitude towards one another may not strike you as big blockbuster entertainment, but that’s because, as is typical of Villeneuve, the thrill comes from letting the plot slowly unspool around you. Here the war is dictated not by weapons, but by words – the most important tool we possess. And as this film so eloquently articulates, a failure to communicate, is a danger to us all.