In a world where the human race’s perverse fear of the unknown has only ever painted extra-terrestrial life in the broad brushstrokes of antipathy, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival subverts expectations by depicting aliens who come, or rather “arrive”, in peace.
Based on the 1998 science-fiction novella, ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, the movie uses its blockbuster genre as a front to successfully discuss deeper questions of humanity, through the story of Amy Adams’s tranquil, grounded linguist, Louise Banks. She drives the story with quiet, unwavering determination. Her mind is our window into a time when alien spacecrafts appear on Earth; as they station themselves in 12 different locations around the world, the human race is rendered powerless, entering a race against time. Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly is a perfect complement, an instant partner-in-crime as she wrestles whole countries away from the verge of extraterrestrial war, despite the differences between social and applied sciences respectively.
As our protagonist strives to bridge the gap in communications, fear gently sends the world into chaos – civil society resorts to violence, entire nations unravel, and humanity begins to fracture. This is a deeply meditative commentary on modern society, one that only gains more relevance year after year, especially after everything 2020 has witnessed.
The movie keenly explores the inherent human tendency for violence against anything that does not fit our moulds (personified as the impatient soldiers who decide on an offensive strategy). This, again, is oddly prophetic of the socio-cultural discourse that arose this year. And in all its analysis, the movie reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of humankind; but in the process, elevates the protagonist to an untouchable pedestal, the torchbearer of tolerance and patience. Everything around her is designed to dominate – from the gravity-defying monolithic spacecrafts set against the mountains of Montana, the institutions that have enlisted her, to even her workplace design, ‘the interview room’, where she communicates with the aliens. Yet, Louise Banks ploughs through, weaponising her knowledge, and in the process of learning this new language, surrenders herself to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The aliens’ final message is only testament that the virtues of this idealistic character have given humanity a great gift.
The director’s forte of creating frames that juxtapose infinite landscapes with minute beings is spectacularly put to use, establishing the tone for the whole film, which is a bone-chilling suspense thriller, reaching feverish heights especially in scenes that feature the aliens. His fresh vision for the overworked concept of ‘first contact’ reduces us to a nail-biting, clinging-to-the-edge-of-our-seats mess. The aptly dubbed ‘Heptapods’ of Arrival also lay to rest the human-centric depictions of aliens that have graced our screens, re-imagining them, not with pairs of eyes, arms or legs, but as gigantic seven-legged creatures, wrapped in an ethereal mist, with their ability to communicate through an iconographic language, resembling inky, looped blots.
It is here that Arrival’s success lies, in the fact that it mixes up all of modern sci-fi films’ tropes of aliens, intertwined timelines, military intervention, and miscommunication, to serve up a concoction steeped in heart and soul. This essentially keeps it from becoming the one-dimensional wreck of a storyline many major Hollywood productions turn out to be. Everything from Bradford Young’s cinematography to the stunning production design shows us an otherworldly nostalgia, leaving us, the audience, with an oddly displaced, unsettled feeling. We experience all this through the lens of a woman – the tale of her love lost and gained immediately turns it into a modern-day sibylline tragedy, creating an instant classic.
A ‘dirty sci-fi’, as described by Villeneuve himself, this movie packs in various themes to haunt us, starting from death, despair and loneliness, and ending in love, wisdom and free will, coming full circle to present one of this decade’s most gut-wrenching plot-twist endings. It is at this point that everything from Louise Banks’s carefully strategized complexion to Johann Johannsson’s haunting melancholic background score is so beautifully substantiated, as it brings this woman’s past, present, and future to merge with her triumphs and losses, her visions and dreams.
Not unlike what Louise Banks says to Ian Donnelly, we had, until Arrival, quite forgotten “how good it felt to be held” in the arms of a good modern sci-fi film.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.