D: Denis Villeneuve. S: Eric Heisserer. St: “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. P: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde. Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma. DVD/Blu-ray dist: (UK) Entertainment One, (US) Paramount.
Alien first-contact scenarios have been done almost to death of late, with the image of huge extraterrestrial craft suddenly appearing over the world’s major cities now something of a cliché. To tackle such a familiar trope with originality and intelligence is a tall order for any filmmaker, and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) is an admirable attempt to do just that; if the film ultimately fails to satisfy completely, then at least it leaves the viewer thinking seriously about what they’ve just seen. The film centres on linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), whose young daughter we have just watched pass away (through a heartbreakingly understated opening montage) from a rare and incurable illness. We move abruptly from close-quarters tragedy to wider-focus scenes of global panic, as twelve vast alien craft materialise at apparently random sites all over the world. The craft resemble shell-like concave discs, suspended above the ground; a vertical shaft extends into the interior, which is found to possess strange gravitational anomalies. Louise has previously supplied linguistic advice to the US military, and she is quickly seconded by hard-headed Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) as an alien translator, joining a small first-contact liaison team that also includes physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
With some trepidation, Louise ascends into one of the Shells to meet its “heptapod” pilots: huge, seven-tentacled squid-like beings, which dwell behind a window-like barrier in a smoke-filled, zero-G environment. Their spoken language is incomprehensible (unless you speak foghorn, which Louise doesn’t), but their written language – a series of circular, Rorschach-like symbols, squirted like ink from the creatures’ tentacles – proves more promising. But while Louise and Ian painstakingly assemble a common vocabulary, military pressures become increasingly acute. China and Russia take a belligerent stance against the visitors, and the US government follows suit after one of the alien symbols is translated as “weapon”. Will Louise and Ian discover the true purpose of the alien visitation before the world tries to nuke them all out of existence…?
The initial “reveal” of the Shell-craft deftly avoids the clichéd sensationalism of Independence Day and the like, offering us only brief, puzzling glimpses of these vast artefacts through panicked TV news reports; when we finally get to see one up close, it resembles an elegant Barbara Hepworth sculpture in design. The heptapods themselves are an imposing presence, dark shapes glimpsed behind clouds of mist, and the blasts of alien language we hear are effectively frightening. (It only occurred to me much later that their general appearance is not dissimilar to the comically malevolent aliens in The Simpsons: “One day they’ll construct a board with a nail in it so large that it will destroy them all, haargh haargh haargh.”) The smoky-aquarium look of the heptapod environment recalls a similar arrangement for the “Guild Navigators” in David Lynch’s Dune (1984, happily the only aspect of that misfire which springs to mind during Arrival). While the ambiguity of the “inkblot” symbols is initially intriguing, the continued ambivalence of the aliens in explaining the reason for their visit does get a bit wearing. If you’re going to visit a foreign country, you should at least make some effort to learn the language; the heptapods, however, prove themselves even more obtuse than the English in expecting the natives to do the hard work, and seem content just to supply the odd gnomic hint here and there. Well, they’ll only have themselves to blame if they can’t read the menus properly.
Director Villeneuve adopts a sorrowful, reflective tone, punctuating the present-day narrative with teasing bursts of memory (shots of Louise with her daughter at different stages of her life, from birth to death); the overall mood he paints of resigned melancholy is quietly impressive, and bodes well for his upcoming Blade Runner 2049. The emotional core of the film has genuine resonance, and is frankly more satisfying than the rather insubstantial plot. The success of the latter hinges on a final-act twist which fundamentally alters the way we perceive the entire preceding narrative, and also lends a poignant double-meaning to the film’s title. The problem is that said twist comes from so far out of left field, and is so gobsmackingly inexplicable, that the only possible reaction is a furrowed brow and a slightly impatient sigh. (Coincidentally, the recent TV remake of Westworld concluded with a similar surprise, though one which played more credibly in context.) Without the twist, all we have is yet another “awesome first contact” scenario, derived chiefly from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama, and jazzed-up with absurdist sophistry straight out of Bill and Ted. These latter elements work fine in SF comedy, but start to look worryingly thin when transplanted to a straight dramatic context (where the rules of engagement are rather more strict). Still, this is writer Eric Heisserer’s most ambitious piece to date, having previously supplied workmanlike scripts for The Thing (2011) and Final Destination 5 (2011), and its sober, thoughtful tone has a maturity not often found in genre cinema. Overall, Arrival is a pleasingly low-key and absorbing revisitation of well-worn themes, though it does leave the viewer wanting more.