Like all great science fiction, Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece Arrival is a profound philosophical exploration of what makes us humans


Arrival (2016)

Di­rect­ed by De­nis Vil­leneuve. Screen­play by Eric Heis­ser­er, based on “Sto­ry of Your Life” by Ted Chi­ang. Star­ring Amy Adams, Je­re­my Ren­ner, For­est Whitak­er, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, Abi­gail Pniowsky, Ju­lia Scar­lett Dan and Ja­dyn Malone.

At a cer­tain mo­ment in De­nis Vil­leneuve’s sci-fi mas­ter­piece Ar­rival, lin­guist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, says to physi­cist Ian Don­nel­ly (Je­re­my Ren­ner) that she feels that every­thing they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing comes down to the two of them. Aliens are mak­ing con­tact with Earth in gi­gan­tic, semi-oval ex­trater­res­tri­al ves­sels that float over twelve seem­ing­ly ar­bi­trary sites around the globe, but there are times when it takes a ma­jor large-scale event to help us re­al­ize that the most sur­pris­ing is right next to us. Ar­rival is a spe­cial film about spe­cial en­coun­ters, and a pro­found philo­soph­i­cal ex­plo­ration of the hu­man con­di­tion that makes us re­flect on the beau­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, mem­o­ry and love.

Adapt­ed by Eric Heis­ser­er from Ted Chiang’s short sto­ry Sto­ry of Your Life, Ar­rival be­gins right away with a heart­break­ing se­quence com­pa­ra­ble to the first ten min­utes of Up (2009), in the sense that it should bring you to tears be­fore a premise is even es­tab­lished. With a beau­ti­ful score and bluish cin­e­matog­ra­phy, it al­ready shapes the film’s the­mat­ic core as Louise nar­rates this sto­ry of be­gin­nings and end­ings and we see her los­ing her daugh­ter Han­nah to can­cer. Then we jump to the present, when the aliens ar­rive on Earth and Louise is asked by U.S. Army Colonel GT We­ber (For­est Whitak­er) to join a team of spe­cial­ists to find out if they have come in peace or are a threat. As ten­sion and fear be­gin to es­ca­late into ri­ots all over the world, Louise must race against time to find a way to com­mu­ni­cate with the aliens be­fore a glob­al war erupts.

The most im­por­tant ques­tions to which she must find an­swers are: What is their pur­pose on Earth? Why twelve ves­sels and not just one? And why those spe­cif­ic lo­ca­tions? What do they have in com­mon? Right from the mo­ment when the aliens make con­tact, Vil­leneuve builds a strong sense of mys­tery. Louise’s stu­dents don’t show up in class any­more, U.S. mil­i­tary air­crafts are seen burst­ing through the sky at full speed, trig­ger­ing our in­stant fear that some­thing must be very wrong, and Louise is vis­it­ed by mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who need her to trans­late strange gut­tur­al sounds from some un­known source. Vil­leneuve di­rects these scenes with­out hur­ry, stretch­ing the ten­sion and keep­ing us in a con­stant state of apprehension.

The fram­ing and cam­era move­ments also con­tribute to en­hance that feel­ing. Take, for in­stance, the long scene of the first en­counter. It is long enough to leave us on the edge of our seats, and Vil­leneuve plays with our sense of per­spec­tive. The team can walk along the sides of the alien ves­sel, and at one mo­ment he even stretch­es the length of the cor­ri­dor that leads to a large rec­tan­gu­lar glass. There is a cru­cial wait as they walk to­wards the glass, the score us­ing three notes that re­peat over and over, elic­it­ing a pow­er­ful feel­ing of anx­i­ety. We see fog on the oth­er side, and at one mo­ment the cam­era tilts up from above the char­ac­ters (who are seen up­side down) to the glass — where­as a few times ear­li­er, it tilt­ed down from ceil­ings to win­dows when the char­ac­ters were right-side up on Earth. Again, it’s all about perspective.

Grav­i­ty is rel­a­tive, up can be down and all this brings us to one of the most im­por­tant mat­ters un­der dis­cus­sion: com­mu­ni­ca­tion. First of all, how can you com­mu­ni­cate with an alien race with­out a start­ing point? And how can you make sure they un­der­stand what you are try­ing to say? Words can have dif­fer­ent mean­ings, and Louise knows that lan­guage was seen in the past as an ex­pres­sion of art. Amy Adams, by the way, does a fan­tas­tic job in mak­ing us be­lieve that her char­ac­ter is a high­ly qual­i­fied lin­guist with a great un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ty of lan­guage, like when she gives We­ber a more pre­cise mean­ing for a rare San­skrit word or uses the word “kan­ga­roo” as an ex­am­ple of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But even more in­ter­est­ing is how she and Don­nel­ly bap­tize the aliens as “Ab­bott” and “Costel­lo,” a ref­er­ence to the duo’s com­e­dy bit Who’s on first?, which was all about misunderstanding.

And if I men­tion Louise and per­spec­tive, the fact is that her per­spec­tive is at the cen­ter of the nar­ra­tive, since we fol­low every­thing from her point of view. When she is fly­ing to Mon­tana aboard a U.S. air­craft, we are only able to hear what Don­nel­ly is say­ing over the loud en­gine noise when she puts on her head­phones; and when the air­craft ap­proach­es the ves­sel, we see it from an aer­i­al shot (that is, Louise’s eye lev­el). Sub­jec­tive sounds and im­ages are ac­com­pa­nied by dis­so­nant nois­es that seem to re­flect her feel­ings about what she is look­ing at. We share her ap­pre­hen­sion and lat­er fas­ci­na­tion with an un­known non-lin­ear lan­guage, and when she de­cides to dif­fer­en­ti­ate (or in­di­vid­u­al­ize) her­self (“Louise”) from the whole (“hu­man”), re­mov­ing her Haz­mat suit and ap­proach­ing the aliens, the cam­era also moves clos­er to one of them and lets us see more of their bod­ies too.

When Louise be­gins to dream in their lan­guage and have sud­den flash­es of mem­o­ries, the cam­era starts to move in an edgi­er way, go­ing in and out of fo­cus and show­ing us vi­su­al­ly her dis­ori­en­ta­tion — and the use of shal­low fo­cus and muf­fled sounds when she is around oth­er peo­ple em­pha­sizes her dis­con­nec­tion from them. She hears sounds that are not there and in­tru­sive mem­o­ries in­sist on in­vad­ing her thoughts to the point that she doesn’t seem to be that psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly fit any­more to con­tin­ue her work. Any­one who suf­fers from at­ten­tion deficit or tends to day­dream will find it easy to re­late to that, and the won­der­ful edit­ing mix­es re­al­i­ty with those con­fus­ing flash­es in an ef­fec­tive way — first timid­ly but lat­er more intensely.

To an­swer its philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, Ar­rival em­braces the Sapir-Whorf hy­poth­e­sis, that is, the idea that lan­guage de­ter­mines or af­fects thought. But it goes even far­ther in its am­bi­tions by also sug­gest­ing that hu­man­i­ty is per­haps not ready yet to face the un­known (the Mahjong strat­e­gy shows that). Re­porters on TV quick­ly twist a sen­tence like “of­fer weapon” into “use weapon” with­out car­ing about the rad­i­cal change in mean­ing or the dan­ger­ous im­pli­ca­tions of that. And if we think very care­ful­ly about the im­por­tance of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween those twelve coun­tries, it should make a whole lot of sense that the aliens would pick na­tions such as Rus­sia, Chi­na, Venezuela and Su­dan to teach a les­son on union, tol­er­ance, trust and peace.

With a beau­ti­ful score by Jóhann Jóhanns­son that makes an im­pec­ca­ble link be­tween the first and last scenes us­ing Max Richter’s melan­choly On the Na­ture of Day­light, Ar­rival re­it­er­ates its main themes about time, com­pro­mise, love and what makes us em­brace life even know­ing how and where the road leads. Per­haps a more ap­pro­pri­ate ti­tle should have been “Han­nah.” In any case, there is so much that this film pro­pos­es in terms of philo­soph­i­cal and ex­is­ten­tial­ist ideas that it would take a lot of ar­ti­cles to dis­cuss the im­pli­ca­tions of every­thing it says. And that, of course, is the best type of sci­ence fic­tion there is.


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