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Film Review: Arrival

Friday, 6 January 2017  | Darren Mitchell


A film directed by Denis Villeneuve

Reviewed by Darren Mitchell

            One of the things we admire most in fiction is an ending that is surprising, yet inevitable…

            It’s a feeling of awe, as if you’ve come into contact with absolute truth.       

-Ted Chiang

            Now I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings.

- Dr Louise Banks

When in 1770 Captain Cook was forced to temporarily beach the Endeavour in Far North Queensland, the local Guugu Yimithirr people would have been intrigued by strangers bearing gifts from across the seas. Their language became the first to be recorded by Europeans.

Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival is a story of first contact. Twelve identical spacecraft are hovering sentinel-like across the world in seemingly random locations (including one off the west coast of Australia). Later we will learn that the occupants are bearing gifts. However, initially the challenge is how to communicate with the extra-terrestrial visitors - enormous squid like ‘heptapods’.

The central character is a professor of linguistics, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams – Enchanted, The Master) drafted within hours of their ‘arrival’ to work with scientists led by Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner: The Hurt Locker, The Bourne Legacy) and the military commanded by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker: The Last King of Scotland, The Butler).

We are conditioned to anticipate extra-terrestrial visits going hand-in-hand with violent military-led reprisal - nefarious intentions are inevitably presumed. But the front-line of this engagement is Louise. Her task is to answer the question ‘what is your purpose on earth?’. What follows is a riveting exploration of a linguist at work. Initially thought of as an obvious task of translation of sounds, the heptapod language proves to be a purely visual challenge. The aliens squirt ink (a clever counterpart for writing) to create whole paragraphs of meaning in a single circular logogram. Pleading for more time, Louise references Cook’s 1770 encounter to caution against headstrong assumptions that could create misunderstanding.

How would we connect with aliens? It is not a silly question – the international collaboration of eminent scientists known as SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is constantly projecting radio signals into deep space, and in 1972 the satellite Pioneer 10 carried a plaque with a mix of diagrams and images to illustrate human existence. In a fleeting appearance by a government official in the film, anxious assurances are given that ‘we have a protocol for scenarios like this’. And, mysterious as it may seem, that is the case in our world: SETI would initially play a part in confirming contact, but very quickly the US Defence Intelligence Organisation would of course assume a military response is required. And that is what occurs in Arrival. Banks is dramatically whisked from her home via army helicopter to begin the encounter at a mist-shrouded base in Montana.

However, the film has already had another beginning – the first five minutes movingly and devastatingly portray Louise’s daughter Hannah through birth, childhood and early death as a young adult. This superbly edited arc of her life pitches us immediately onto a roller-coaster of feelings. Louise’s emotionally charged relationship with her daughter is also at the heart of the film’s twist, or, rather, its shift in perspective which delivers a profound realisation that we are watching one of the most intelligent and empathic investigations of the human condition delivered on screen in some years.

Reviewers routinely cite Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), two giants of American philosophical film-making, as clear influences, but Villeneuve, whose previous film was the acclaimed Sicario, has stepped beyond this inheritance. He is deeply committed to narrative, and the momentum of Arrival’s tale, adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang (Story of Your Life), is at the heart of the movie’s success. Even with the obvious intellectual ambition - non-zero and zero sum games, the Sapir-Whorf linguistic hypothesis, and non-linear orthography are concepts as ‘alien’ as the heptapods - and a myriad of unanswered questions prompted by the film’s ending, Arrival has had unexpected and significant box office success.

And, surprisingly for a sci-fi presentation, there is no action in space and only smatterings of violence. Instead, there is a cascade of arresting visual elements: tracking shots that drift downwards from ceilings, amplifying the claustrophobia of Louise’s workspaces and her glass-walled home with its small ‘air-lock’ vestibule; the routine of suiting up for the timed encounters in the spacecraft and the decompression afterwards, all of which functions like a liturgy; the screen barrier with which, by touching with an open hand, Louise is able to draw forth trust and conversation from the aliens. Our earthbound limits are eerily exposed.

Villeneuve marries Chiang’s ingenious plot with moody blues and greys, bringing a crisp practicality to the settings courtesy of the cinematography of Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year). The sonorous fugue of composer Jóhann Jóhannson (Theory of Everything) and its wordless human voices resonate to chilling effect. Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight plays heartrendingly over the Hannah sequences that bookend the film. Together they make a critical contribution to this at times overwhelming production.

Louise’s suffering in losing her daughter hovers closely like the ceilings throughout the film. The twelve heralds which also hover just out of easy reach bring the gift of their language which has the power to change human perspective on the world. Through contact with the heptapods and learning their language, Louise sees her suffering in a new light, as God sees in eternal perspective. Despite her grief, Louise is freed to live in the present. We share in this journey, often ‘seeing’ only by close-ups of Adams observing something yet to be revealed to the audience. Adams’ performance registers the profound emotional depth of Louise through the softest of gestures and a face that illuminates the inner reckonings of permanent grief and the ceaseless wrestling of assiduous inquiry.

Arrival is a gift of remarkable filmmaking. We exit the cinema in awe of Villeneuve’s achievement, and of what more we now know of God’s world.

Darren Mitchell is a PhD student studying Anzac commemoration rituals, a member of St Barnabas Broadway and Zadok film reviewer.

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