There is hope yet for you English majors to break through the stereotypes of becoming a teacher and / or not being able to feed a family of four the way a large pepperoni pizza can. In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks is an expert linguist, called upon to aid the United States government in communicating with one of the 12 alien spacecrafts that has landed on Earth. This film doesn’t feel like a sci-fi though. It is well made and reveals the rules of its reality gradually and without anything that might cause you to step aside and question the illusion. There are a host of films that you might think of when you hear “sci-fi” —Elysium, District 9, Independence Day and Paul — but this film only fits into the genre of sci-fi because it has aliens. Every other aspect of this film is similar to a drama. The aliens and the reality they bring into question are only an afterthought to how this film plays out.
Arrival doesn’t get caught up trying to build suspense by hiding the reveal of the actual aliens: when the time comes to meet them there is no delay. They are there, right there, no clever camera angles to disguise their appearance or shape. This is what makes the film most convincing and the least like sci-fi. The frankness with which the extraterrestrials are presented pushes the viewer’s agreeance and cooperation with the illusion to the max. Instead of wasting time trying to convince the audience the aliens are cool, Villeneuve creates the mystique of the beings through the inability to communicate with them and the unique manner in which they act. This is a huge relief from the sci-fi fatigue you might experience from being in the midst of the X-files series.
At this point in film history, it is nearly impossible to create any sort of extraterrestrial-themed cinema without making homage to Ridley Scott and the Alien franchise. The ships that the aliens arrive in are shaped like Scott’s xenomorph eggs — why not, right? The creatures themselves are a visual treat and have similar features to some of the extraterrestrials from the original Alien film. Scott’s idea of alien creators, like in Prometheus, plays in for a minute, but does not end up holding any ground, though his work is still clearly referenced for the duration of the film.
I wouldn’t want to detract from the guaranteed excellent theatre experience that Arrival will offer you, so if you plan to see it, consider stopping here. If I haven’t yet convinced you, or if I have hooked you, then carry on soldier; the spoilers ahead are only of worry to the most die-hard “I-haven’t-even-seen-the-trailer” type of moviegoers.
Arrival is very similar in style to Villeneuve’s previous film Sicario based on the choice of a female lead amongst a cast of all males, and a methodical, well-plotted delivery of the contents of the story. It begins the same way most dystopian alien invasion films would: the scene is set, characters are introduced, and then the spacecrafts land. However, this is the end of the familiar formula. There is no sudden eruption of war, there are no attempts to harvest the energy or resources of Earth. Instead, countries unite via tactical camps at each of the landing sites and live feed their progress of working with the aliens to one another. Amy Adams as Dr. Banks, a linguist with security clearance, and Jeremy Renner playing a physicist are called up to head a team of analytic staff to communicate with the new guests.
At a time when Trump has won presidency of the United States, the reality of the terror of how he might handle a national security crisis (think of something more realistic than an alien invasion here, okay) is a very real fear that this film could cause you to consider. As events unfolded, I could not stop repeating to myself, “This is exactly how it would happen.” (Granted that the newly arrived were benevolent.) My fears were echoed by my movie-going companions at my sides, though our shared understanding did not continue for long. This is what makes the film most terrifying. As an audience, a film is typically experienced all together, with the implications of the plot and climax becoming clear to each viewer at the same time. There is strength in this method as a director can rely on unifying the audience as they each react to the jumps and jokes. However, dividing them and requiring them to figure it out on their own (like Inception might have) is what Villeneuve does with this film. My companion to my right inhaled sharply halfway through the film as they grasped what was happening, while I only understood two-thirds of the way through — my companion to the left not till nearly the end. As a group divided, experiencing the film alone became something that Villeneuve used to build his case of evidence and support his subtle conclusion.
Thematically, this film relies heavily on the shape and semiotics of circles. Ends are beginnings within the development of the plot, and the infinite motion that a circle implies plays into the way that time is portrayed. Characters too are subject to circular themes. At the risk of sounding gauche (oh, it’s too late), Nolan’s Interstellar and Inception are both essential to reference here once again. If you enjoyed either of those films and the thematic content they contained, then Arrival will be an absolute treat for you. The similarities between the three films go beyond theme and into their mind-bending visuals as well. Nolan was never afraid of cinematographic grandeur and Villeneuve takes a leaf from his book with some of the physics that the alien species introduce. Contrary to Nolan’s tradition of continued spectacle though, Villeneuve makes the film less and less visually appealing as it rolls on. The colour and appeal of the cinematography drain from the film as the likelihood of you figuring out the story becomes more likely.
This film will likely sweep at the Oscars, this film will likely become a classic (the same way I think Gravity will become a classic), and this film is easily a masterpiece among Villeneuve’s work so far. The reason that these things are all mostly true is because Arrival is a tale that can only be told the way it is through the medium of film. The way that change in colour tone as the film progresses paired with subtle visual clues promote the subtext that leads you to “figure out” the film is exquisite. A book cannot casually mention subtle hints to figuring out the mystery in the way that a film can. When David Fincher sneaks a Starbucks cup into every shot of Fight Club you don’t figure it out. When a book says, “There was a Starbucks cup cloaked in shadow in the corner of the room” you start to pick up on it pretty quick. Whatever words have made it into a book, it’s clear to the reader that they are there for a reason, whereas audiences are easily tricked into thinking that every pixel of the frame is not as much under the director’s control. Via all the subtle clues that Villeneuve works into the visual landscape and story of Arrival, his final blast-off of a conclusion touches down at its destination in the most cinematic and successful way possible.