Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker torn between the figurative and the literal, who’s drawn to emotional subjects (frequently the death of children) which he dramatizes with a mathematical painter’s eye. There’s poetry in his films, far more than one’s accustomed to finding in mainstream American cinema, but this poetry is often corralled to serve a pat purpose. One senses Villeneuve’s consciousness of this constraining tendency and his eagerness to break free of it, such as in Enemy, which strives to be free-wheeling and hallucinatory, achieving these qualities only in fussy dribs and drabs. It’s logical in this context, then, that Villeneuve would make a film featuring an artist-type and a rationalist, as they embody the dueling tendencies of his sensibility.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life,” Arrival is about Earth’s first encounter with extraterrestrials. At the beginning of the film, 12 half-spherical metal crafts—which suggest the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey if it were shaped like a skinny egg—hover above major countries, inviting us to discern their intentions. The narrative is set on the American site of contact in Montana, where the United States military has recruited Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician, to decode sounds that could be alien speech. A telling bit of dialogue encapsulates how Louise and Ian respectively approach this mind-bending opportunity: Louise claims that language, which is somewhat open to interpretation, is the foundation of civilization, while Ian counters that society owes its existence to theoretically more concrete science. With this contrast between intuition and rationalism established, Louise and Ian venture into a great unknown oft plumbed by science fiction and horror films.
Of course, aliens have been visiting Earth in the movies nearly since the inception of cinema, and mediocre filmmakers, viewing tropes merely as tropes, often forget to evoke the unimaginable awesomeness and terror of actual alien contact. By exhilarating contrast, Villeneuve painstakingly communicates the aliens’ alien-ness. Louise and Ian’s first exposure to the spaceship isn’t tossed off as an inciting incident, but used as fodder for a set piece that suggests a merging of Steven Spielberg’s sense of wonder and Stanley Kubrick’s propensity for sinister visual symmetry.
Louise and Ian’s ascension into the spaceship, where they will speak with the aliens, involves an intoxicatingly immersive procedure that allows audiences to grasp, step by step, the characters’ transition from the realm of the mundane to that of the fantastic. Obsessive tracking shots follow a lift that bridges the distance from the ground to the entrance of the craft, which opens every 18 hours when the aliens are ready to convene. (This meeting time is signaled, in the military camp, by an ominous, pulsating horn that’s reminiscent of the blaring sound effects from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)
Louise and Ian enter the ship, lose gravity, and proceed to stroll straight up a bare, surreally vertical passageway that suggests a hallway in a chic museum. Eventually they reach the aliens, who live in a tank of fog and resemble giant, standing squid and sound, poignantly, like whales. It takes only a few of these visits for the wounded, empathetic Louise to broker a huge discovery: that the aliens have a written language, expressed by ink that shoots out of their tendrils, forming floating shapes suggestive of circular Rorschach ink blots.
These details are irresistible, as Arrival’s unusually interested in the process of communication—at least for a while. For instance, while Louise is using English as the bedrock of her negotiation with the aliens, the Chinese are utilizing the symbols of Mahjong, a competitive game that colors their dialogues with a degree of conflict that’s inherent in the chosen symbology, paralleling a test that Louise proffers to the American military at the beginning of the film. She tells the military to evaluate her rival for this job by asking him for the Sanskrit word for war. The rival produces a word that Louise interprets, presumably more truthfully, as a desire to trade cows. The point is that language shapes our conception of reality and vice versa. (One recalls a plot driving George Orwell’s 1984, in which a hunger for freedom is to be destroyed by obliterating the word itself.)
Louise may have an artist’s comfort with intuition, but she’s also a lonely academic locked in a prison of intellectuality, analyzing life to death from a distance (as Ian says, she’s more of a mathematician than she might care to admit). Louise yearns for transcendence, which she correctly discerns as a point of commonality with the aliens she observes. And what the aliens offer Louise and humankind at large is a revolutionary circular language which ushers forth a reality of simultaneity, free of distinctions of past, present, and future. At a stage in her life, Louise lost a daughter to a rare disease, a tragedy which Villeneuve visualizes in woozy, rueful shards of imagery that evoke The Tree of Life. At the film’s climax, we realize that the heartbreak of Louise’s family isn’t in her past, but her now visible future, and she plunges into it anyway, understanding something that’s often tough for highly rational introverts to grasp: that ecstasy is impossible without loss.
As staged by Villeneuve and acted by Adams and Renner, this is all quite moving—so moving, in fact, that it might take one a little while to discern that Arrival has neatly wedded the pacifist message of Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still with the three-hanky bombast of any melodrama with a dead child or alienated professional at its center. For all of the film’s considerable craftsmanship, one keeps tripping on the pop-cultural derivations and signposts. At times, Villeneuve suggests M. Night Shyamalan without the neurosis and self-consciousness.
Abandoned somewhere in Arrival’s third act is the interest in language as the fabric of our reality, as the catalyst for the blossoming of Louise’s new existence as she becomes a woman without time, a potential new Billy Pilgrim. The film ends just as it’s revving up, then, evading the formidable formalist challenge of breaking the barriers of beginnings and endings, causes and effects. Louise may find freedom, or a new prison, but the ramifications of that freedom are unimagined as anything other than a superficially uplifting punchline. Villeneuve is a near-visionary who can’t break free of formula.
The image's blacks and browns are rich and varied, and the silvery autumnal tones that dominate Arrival are sharp. Details are appropriately subtle for a film that's so occupied with tactile textures. Minute facial specifics are detectable (one can make out the nearly colorless hair high on characters' cheeks), and grace notes abound, such as the interplay of the various shades of white light in the alien fog. The soundtracks, particularly the English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, offer plenty of requisite genre-movie bombast (like the bass-y approach of the spaceships) while preserving the fragile intricacy of the flutes and wood instruments that bolster the sonic bridging and rhyming of the score and sound editing. A gorgeous and attentive transfer.
The extras here are strikingly sincere, offering an earnest portrait of gifted artists seeking to carve out their own niche in the speculative science-fiction genre. Five featurettes cover a variety of topics: the film’s inception, the sound design, the score, the editing, and a brief overview of the principles of time, memory, and language that drive the narrative. There are particularly choice bits with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson recording and manipulating choral voices, while claiming that he wanted to use vocals in the score to bridge the music with the film’s thematic emphasis on communication. The editor, Joe Walker, discusses the film’s tricky editing rhythms, particularly the honing required to coherently land that third-act twist. Ted Chiang, the author of Arrival’s source material, "The Story of Your Life," discusses the concept of linearity, and the idea that the past, present, and future all already exist. Correspondingly, Chiang discusses the impetus of his story and his drive to explore the question of what a human would do if they knew their future and couldn’t change it due to the potential laws of physics. (This is a nuance that’s regrettably marginalized in Arrival, which implies that the heroine’s refusal to alter her life is a conscious, life-affirming act of bravery.) Like everyone else interviewed here, Chiang is passionate and erudite, offering thoughts that expand our understanding of the intentions driving Arrival.
Denis Villeneuve's moving yet disappointingly cautious mind-bender is accorded a robustly beautiful transfer and surprisingly thoughtful supplements.