It’s not clear why exactly but I’ve long been inexplicably moved by seeing scenes of humans and aliens trying to communicate with one another. It’s perhaps because of the wonderful sentiment behind it, two life forms with an urge to talk to each other against all odds, a beautiful image of intergalactic respect, harmony, compassion and curiosity, instead of the more usual vision of warfare and destruction. So for that reason alone I was favourable towards Arrival (Denis Villeneuve 2016) beforehand. I was not disappointed when I finally saw the film.
The story, written by Eric , based on a short story by Ted Chiang called Story Of Your Life, tells of twelve space crafts that land in various parts of the world, or rather they don’t land but hover just above the surface of the Earth. Humans are invited to board the crafts and engage with the aliens, which are called (as they have seven feet). As it is an American film the focus is on the craft that landed there, in Montana, but the other landings are talked about too and the one in China is the second most important one.
In the real world I would imagine that if aliens did come to Earth and tried to talk to us we would probably have to use artificial intelligence to communicate with them. That however is not how things work out in Arrival. Instead, the world's greatest linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is called in to have a go at it. And she does succeed. But she is not working alone, she works together with a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner. Perhaps it would have been more unconventional if the roles had been reversed, with the scientist played by a woman and the linguist by a man, but then the man would have had the lead and the woman the supporting role, as language is key here. There is a tradition of positing the humanities and the sciences as opposites, the two cultures discussion made famous by C.P. Snow and others, but here they are shown working side by side, and the opposition is between an intellectual approach and the military approach of raw muscle. Or, perhaps better, the opposition is between fear and openness. It is sometimes said that today there is little point in talking anymore about left and right when it comes to politics, but instead talk about being open and being closed, and Arrival could be said to take a similar view.
The film is in many ways political and the message is about cooperation and communication, while acknowledging how hard it is to do these things and how easy we misunderstand one another. Communication is to some extent an art form, and some are better at it than others. Like with everything else in life. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise 1951) a space ship lands in Washington and the message from the aliens is that we humans need to shape up, disarm and unite, to work together towards peace. There is a similar message here, in Arrival. The film is also topical in other ways, where current sensibilities come to play. As it is presented in the film, the US and China are the only two countries that really matter in global affairs (and the film also suggests that China leads whereas Russia only follows, which I imagine will annoy Putin’s ego). There is another dimension to this as well. In one scene, an official explains that two countries have broken off cooperation and decided to follow China’s lead. In the trailer (one of several) it is France and Korea that are named as these countries. In the film however, in the same scene, it is not France and Korea that are named but instead Russia and Pakistan. How should we interpret that? Did someone complain since France and Korea are American allies and so replaced? Or is it the fact that different countries are named depending on where the film is shown?
At the end of Berlin Express, a fine film by Jacques Tourneur from 1948, on the cusp of the Cold War, an old man says wearily that it will perhaps take an alien invasion in order for us humans to work together as a whole. In Arrival, the aliens arrival at first instead leads to increasing levels of panic, anxiety, violence and looting, and eventually a breakdown of trust. Not just between countries but within countries as well. At the base camp in which Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly work, a couple of soldiers go rogue and foolishly try to attack the space craft. They have been inspired to do so by listening to right wing talk shows, which are here clearly presented as a greater threat than the aliens. It’s worth pointing out that the incoming American administration is made up of guys who listen to such right wing talk shows, or even have their own ones. It’s not a comforting thought.
But there is so much more to Arrival than politics. The cinematography by Bradford Young and the music by for example. The music is spectacular, part eerie, part dreamy, and always in some kind of intellectual dialogue with the images, images which are also spectacular. When the images are dealing with the aliens and the space crafts they have grandeur and a vivid imagination, with a rich, metallic (or at least non-organic) texture. When dealing with the interior life of Louise Banks the visuals are closer to Terrence , they are fleeting and warm, filled with soft focus and glittering sun beams, with an organic texture. The acting too is very good, by Adams, Renner and Forest Whitaker as the head of the operation (a colonel from U.S. Army Intelligence). This is one of those films where people speak in low voices, as if so overwhelmed by what they’re experiencing, which makes it more moving, at least for me. (Both Emily Blunt’s and del Toro’s characters in Villeneuve’s previous film, (2015), primarily speaks in low voices too, often half-whispering.)
17 years ago, I saw Denis Villeneuve’s first feature Un 32 sur (1998) at a film festival, and for some reason that film has never really left me. I’ve kept in alive, although I haven’t been able to watch it again. Arrival though I have already seen twice and I will watch it again. Villeneuve’s films are frequently filled with despair, but this one offers hope.