How will humanity, as a species, ever come together?
It's a question that has many theoretical answers, and almost no literal ones. Division, fear, hatred, tribalism, and more have been a part of our species' makeup since we started walking on two legs, and those qualities don't look like they're going away anytime soon. The concept for reconciliation exists, the notion of "gosh, why can't we all just get along" popping up during every bout of civil unrest, but can never seem to truly take hold. It's likely that the desire for unity comes from a deep rooted place where the idea of "we'd all be able to get along fine if everybody just thought the exact same as I do" also lives, a notion that is obviously impossible. This recurring inability to see eye to eye with one's neighbor lies at the root of drama, and as every story craves resolution, many works of fiction utilize a deus ex machina device when the consequences of division are so high that they border on humanity's self-destruction. In the spiritual and religious eras, it was the Gods or God who came down from the heavens to resolve the story, acting as an all powerful parental figure who called a time out on humanity. During the World Wars, it was the threat of the Enemy, the Other, that allowed fiction where countrymen (and countries themselves) fought together for the common good. Post-war, the new threat was so hidden and ill-defined, that fighting it (both in reality and fiction) meant that people became more divided. So in stories where human unity occurred, the most common cause was a threat, warning, or visitation from another world. Stories of large-scale extraterrestrial invasion differ from stories about first contact with alien intelligent life; the former unites humanity by giving it a common enemy, while the latter begs for unification by putting our place in the universe in perspective. In these stories, we have to put aside our petty differences due to the need for us to act and be represented as a world, rather than a collection of squabbling nations. A key element of every first contact story, whether the aliens are hostile, friendly, or indifferent, involves figuring out how to open the lines of communication. In a lot of instances this process is handwaved away, through some technobabble scientific process or through the alien visitors possessing superpowers or even just by skipping it altogether, having them already speak American English so the story can just move forward. In Denis Villeneuve's new film Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on the story by Ted Chiang, the establishment of communication and search for understanding with alien visitors is the focus of the entire story, allowing the filmmakers to tell the most grounded and realistic tale of first contact yet seen. Coming at a tale of alien invasion from a completely unique perspective allows the film to explore philosophical concepts that are as emotionally staggering as they are intellectually fulfilling, and results in making Arrival a strong contender for the best movie of 2016.
Arrival is a film about language, and as such the entire narrative concerns a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is called upon by an old colleague in the military, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to come to Montana, where one of twelve alien vessels have landed on Earth. There she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they are given the task of establishing communications with creatures whom they later dub "Heptopods", who have arrived with a completely unfathomable agenda. The complex process of teaching the Heptopods our language (or the reverse) is made more tense by the rising anxiety of the world at large, including foreign military powers in particular. That description may sound rote for a first contact movie, but again, it's the way Arrival is told that makes it so unique and special. The perspective may be on the macro, but the focus is on the micro, so intimate that it could almost be a stage play. It's that micro focus that keeps the film grounded, and provides a sense of verisimilitude that makes each moment that much more impactful.
While the performances are great across the board, Arrival is Amy Adams' movie, without question. Her Dr. Banks is similar to Emily Blunt's steely yet empathetic heroine in Villeneuve's Sicario, a staunchly professional woman surrounded by distracted and less empathetic men, who finds herself in over her head rather quickly. Instead of the descent into corruption and depravity that Sicario presented, however, Banks' journey of discovery transforms her (literally and figuratively) into Earth's ambassador, the person who is able to actively communicate with and understand the Heptopods. Adams' performance is, like the rest of the film around her, not "showy" at all, completely grounded in reality. Sympathetic, inquisitive, intelligent and determined, Banks is every bit the character you'd want representing humanity. Adams is supported by her fellow cast members incredibly well, with the standout being Jeremy Renner, who is similarly credible as a career scientist. Over the last several years Renner has found his niche playing "average joe" types, and applies the same feeling to his character here, which makes watching him a treat simply because we've never seen him play this type of guy before. In a story about beings communicating with each other, these actors are one half of the necessary equation, and they hold up their end admirably.
The other half of that equation, obviously, are the Heptopods, and the design of the film in conjunction with the visual effects bring them to life in a similarly credible way. Before we ever see the actual, full Hepto’s themselves, we see their spaceships, which resemble giant clamshells. They hang in the sky like an accent mark above various human skylines and landscapes, and one of Villeneuve’s strokes of genius is that these aliens haven’t come to visit the same handful of cities other cinematic aliens have visited a dozen times before. Instead, the ship that the film is concerned most with resides above a field in Montana, leaving it the most notable landmark on the landscape as far as the eye can see. The entire palette of the film is greys and light blues, with cinematographer Bradford Young giving the entire film a feeling of overcast, early morning haze, making the world feel as if it’s at a standstill despite months going by while humans attempt to make meaningful contact. Inside, the ships remain minimalist, with a dark ribbed interior stopping at a bright white screen that separates the Hepto’s from humans, looking somewhat as if H.R. Giger designed an Apple Store. The Heptopods themselves resemble a cross between an elephant and an octopus, and move in a majestic yet arachnid way. While never repulsive, the Hepto’s nonetheless are unsettlingly alien, enough to not instantly be read as friendly (as something like E.T.’s species was) and always carry the inherent tension of being unknown.
Tension is something that director Villeneuve excels in, and despite its more humanistic tone than his previous work, Arrival is no exception. Each scene is paced expertly, frantic hand held sequences giving way to wide shots that go on for such length as to indicate that they will never end. In the film’s minimalism and deliberate, controlled pace there lies influences of prior genre filmmakers such as Nolan, Fincher and Kubrick, and yet the movie never feels derivative of their works. Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker move between scenes with a deft grace, allowing for a dreamlike quality to settle over the film, especially in the second act. The tension is always kept alive with Johann Johannsson’s score lurking in the background, peeking it’s head out with otherworldly whale-like noises at times, low, ominous tones at others, while at one point delightfully featuring a composition comprised almost totally out of human voices. It’s a cue that sounds like it could have almost been lifted straight out of Andy Hull & Robert McDowell’s score for Swiss Army Man (a movie that will be fighting toe-to-toe with this one for the top of Best Of 2016 lists), a celebration of communication that’s all at once verbal and non-verbal. Notably, there are certain scenes that Villeneuve scores with Max Richter’s heartbreaking “On The Nature Of Daylight”, including an opening sequence that rivals Pixar’s Up for taking an audience from zero to tear ducts in less than five minutes. With Arrival, Villeneuve showcases yet another aspect to his style, not allowing himself to be typecast as a Fincher knockoff or even a Ridley Scott wannabe (given his involvement with the upcoming Blade Runner 2049). This film is his, right down to a scene that could easily be used in a cut of his Jake Gyllenhaal psychodrama Enemy without anyone batting an eye.
All this adds up to Arrival being an ideal film, in that it’s more than the sum of its parts. A fantastic outcome, seeing as how not every aspect of the movie is perfect. A couple scenes feel superfluous and uninspired. The film’s method of tracking the mood of the outside world while the drama in Montana develops is lazy, resting exclusively on cheap looking (and even cheaper written) faux news broadcasts, using every cliche in the book that the rest of the film is too good to use. That said, it works, and doesn’t detract from the tone too much to ruin it. Arrival casts a spell on the audience, teaching us to learn how to watch it through the language of film in much the same way as Louise teaches the Heptopods our language. It is a devastating, moving, fascinating, uplifting movie thatcouldn’t be more relevant than now, in its week of release. Roger Ebert once famously referred to movies as “empathy machines”, meaning that those who truly engage with a film will therefore allow themselves to be affected by its story and characters, confronting the same concepts and ideas and challenges and emotions as they do. In the film, Louise tells Colonel Weber a story that he will use to placate his military superiors, and after he leaves she turns to Ian. “It’s not true”, she says, “but it proves my point”. Similarly, film is fiction, and also “not true”, but it can generate empathy, and it can prove a point. Arrival’s point is that there is one way to truly unite with another being, to rewire your brain to a degree that allows you to see their point of view.