Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)
The likely cause of almost every argument or conflict you have had or will have in your life is an inability to express your point of view through language. Add to this a common desire of getting your point across rather than hearing another’s and you spiral into conflicts that can increase in intensity. Why do we become so focused on what we have to say rather than listen to another? Why is empathy such a hard mindset for us to achieve? Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Arrival wants to explore ideas of communication and perspective and, like all the best science fiction uses a fantastical scenario to present us with very real ideas.
The film opens with a montage showing the birth, life, and death of a little girl. She’s the daughter of Louise Banks (Amy Adams). It’s a pretty rough opening, even more so I would dare than Up. After this montage, we cut to Louise arriving at the college campus where she works as a linguist. The campus is in an uproar, and she eventually learns that twelve strange objects have appeared across the Earth and are believed to be alien craft. Louise is brought into the mission to make successful communication by the U.S. government who are in turn coordinating with the developed nations of the world. Where Arrival goes will definitely surprise you and how the arrival of these beings connects to the story of Louise’s daughter will be the greatest revelation of all.
With this film I can say that Villeneuve has cemented himself as one of my favorite directors of all time and I believe is on his way to becoming one of the best in the art form. I don’t think we have seen his “great film” yet, but we are incredibly close and I’m excited. There is no bombast in his style. While Kubrick was a very much a visual minimalist he could become explosive in his work, not that it was a bad thing and he most certainly earned it. Christopher Nolan is much more in line with Kubrick sensibilities, frigid emotionally but very complex in ideas and concepts. Villeneuve is also working on complex ideas but has a more delicate touch and can bring the human emotional experience into his work without feeling maudlin. He is able to achieve a sort of ambient emotional tone. You feel the emotion of the character without verbalization. Performances are brought out of his actors that convey raw reaction yet filtered through honest human behavior.
Every element of Arrival’s production is at the highest levels. Screenwriter Eric Heisser kept the key pieces of Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” and added the right level of personal intimacy and changes that a film version of that piece needed. Jóhann Jóhannsson, a collaborator with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario, delivers a score that evokes all the profound sense of otherworldliness the visitors should have. The moment Louise arrives at the ship, and first ventures inside is one of the most flawlessly executed sequences I’ve seen in a film all year. Johanssen’s music, the textured production design of Patrice Vermette, and the cinematography of Bradford Young coalesce into a profoundly visceral and eerie experience.
I was a couple years late to Children of Men, missing it’s 2006 release and catching up with it in 2008. What I saw was a film that captured the tone and mindset created by what is probably the most world-changing event in my lifetime, 9/11. Children of Men accurately reflected the sense of tension, paranoia, and xenophobia that was growing at the time. Using science fiction, it was able to tell that story in a way that something set in “our world” would have felt dishonest. Yet through all the despair and decay that director Alfonso Cuarón put onto the screen, he brought us to the conclusion with a sense of hope. I believe Arrival is a film that serendipitously happened at the right time and when it was needed. There is a profound ideological shift going on in our world, and it is incredibly scary right now. In these moments cinema can guide us and help move from these places of despair and remind us there is hope. Arrival is speaking about the growing divisions between nations, communities, and virtually everyone. The need to expand perspectives and work hard to see the world outside of how we’ve always seen it is essential to our survival. The myopic military figures in the film are not villains, they just are too scared to see beyond how they’ve always seen. We have to grasp the idea that life is not about convincing others to see our way but to learn and have empathy for the viewpoint of others. In the same way that Children of Men affected and changed me, Arrival has/is/will do the same and is going to be a film that remains with me for the rest of my life I suspect.
***SPOILERS ABOUT THE ENDING***
At the core of Arrival is a message of transcendent empathy. Louise’s ability to understand the language of the Heptapods is the key to unlocking her new perception of reality. While these ideas are large and complex, by using them to talk about grief and loss they become relatable. Because our protagonist is able to see outside of the typical linear perspective of time, her understanding of the world is vastly expanded. The death of a child will never be a painless experience, but with the ability to experience all points of time simultaneously the dead achieve a sort of immortality. Louise does not experience the same grief her husband does/will/is. Even her daughter’s name, Hannah, is representative of the never-ending sentences the Heptapods composed, no beginning and no end. So while the overarching concept of Arrival is a global, earth-shaking one the story is deeply intimate and personal which is why I think it works so well and accomplishes something Christopher Nolan just couldn’t quite do in Interstellar. In Interstellar the personal story is directly tied to the global one, but in Arrival the personal story happens incidentally to the global. The film chooses to make the personal story its focus and let the machinations of the world’s governments exist as a background on which to project Louise’s transformation and pre-emptive grief. Choosing this point of focus in the story causes Arrival to hit hard emotionally yet not lose it’s cosmically profound concepts.