On the nature of memory, trained eyes and ears, visual language, and cinematic Arrivals past and present
Arrival Paramount Pictures
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the story Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 56 minutes / 2.35:1
November 11, 2016
(out of four)
As Roger Ebert was fond of saying, a movie teaches you how to watch it. As such, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is uniquely instructive about itself.
We know that extraterrestrial spacecrafts have touched down mysteriously at various points across the planet. But we don't know this because we watch it happen; we know it because we watch people watching it happen. Watch them stare at the (off-screen) television in the middle of the classroom, silent. Watch them hovered around an obstructed TV in a hallway as ominous mutterings from the news anchor leak out.
We don't hear the pounding music of a Major Event - the way such events in movies are so often presented - but the mumblings of the radio and people scattering through parking lots and hallways and fighter jets zooming suddenly overhead toward ... well, toward it, presumably. But we still don't see it yet. Instead, we see - and hear - silence. People watch and listen silently, and we watch them. They turn on the radio, they get into their cars absentmindedly, they go to their homes in quiet. Even during those recurring broadcasts we keep hearing, the volume is kept at a minimum. And despite the speed of those fighter jets, the film itself simply remains ... still.
That stillness is Villeneuve's decisive, portentous opening statement, establishing precisely the thoughtful pace and sense of anxious melancholy that will accompany the next two hours. The frame story - about a mother and a daughter and the daughter's death - accomplishes the same, as the film opens with its camera gliding slowly across a ceiling and down, settling on a serene view of a lakefront through the sliding-glass door of an uninhabited room. The lighting, like the rest of the film, is muted, and Amy Adams' narrative voice follows suit, as Max Richter's haunting "On the Nature of Daylight" slowly floods the soundtrack.
If nothing else, Villeneuve has eloquently set our expectations for the nature of the film. Aliens have made a habit of arriving unexpectedly in movies, without an initially clear purpose, for decades. The scenario itself brings with it a certain set of expectations - most of them bad (for humanity, at least), nearly all of them violent. Arrival, however, is not violent or overtly threatening, and anything that might qualify as "action" is pretty much nonexistent. Villeneuve de-emphasizes the pure spectacle. Rather than these mysterious objects - indented on one side; curved and smooth on the other, like a perfectly preserved skipping stone you might find at the beach; a strangely serene dark grey all around - being approached with heightened dread, or celebrated for their special-effects magnitude, they quietly hover. Clouds gently roll over them. The clear sky seems to welcome them. Johann Johansson's ethereal score dances quietly around them, rather than clobbering us with the drama of it all. (Johansson very much went with the clobbering method in his last collaboration with Villeneuve, Siciario, whose score rumbled and roared, to the benefit of a brutal story that did the same. Here, both director and composer go in the opposite direction, with equal effectiveness.)
The objects - twelve of them scattered across the globe, with our story focused in the flat, green serenity of rural Montana - are practically benevolent, if also (by default) more than a little unnerving. The magnitude is certainly there, but the response comes on an emotional-existential level, rather than being treated as some sort of extravaganza. When our protagonist - Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a top-tier linguist and university lecturer - is brought on by the American government to attempt to decipher the language of, and communicate with, the aliens, she sees a predecessor being carted away. "Not everyone is able to process experiences like this," she's told.
This so easily could have been a different type of movie. It could have been paced like a thriller, lit like a horror movie, shot like a traditional CGI spectacle. Instead, Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer - adapting Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, which is also a much better title for this movie - craft a mood piece about communication and choice and memory, one driven by longing for a peaceful world and offering a strange, conflicted sense of hope.
The meat of the film takes place within the spacecraft, which opens for a limited amount of time at regular 18-hour intervals, and during which Louise - along with military personnel and a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, in a relatively rare role that emphasizes his quiet human qualities rather than his action-star skill set) - tries to make headway with the so-called "heptopods." They appear on the other side of a glass partition, perpetually shrouded in white haze, communicating through an inky black smoke that creates circular shapes with varied and intricate patterns. There's a powerful and even disturbing reverence to these scenes, periodically interrupted by the ecstatic thrill of small breakthroughs, all underscored by the majesty of this entirely new language Louise and Co. are trying desperately to understand. When they're not inside the ship (or whatever you want to call it), they're on the ground communicating with the research teams at the other sites (Australia, China, Sierra Leone, etc). Each location seems to have its own discoveries, its own frustrations, its own theories.
There's a real elegance to the way the film moves along, both as a linear narrative and something more psychological and experiential for Louise. The film's structure weaves in memory and subconscious - one sound cue, the ruffling of papers from somewhere unseen, right in the middle of a conscious conversation between Louise and another character, is particularly great - as her understanding of the heptopods' unique form of language begins to set in, and affect her in ways unexpected. The structure is key in examining how certain diametrically opposed concepts (and I'm trying to speak as vaguely as possible here) become, essentially, one and the same, upending or at least altering notions that Louise (and humankind) come to discover are not necessarily so cut-and-dried, for better or worse.
Villeneuve, working with the great cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Selma, All is Lost, Mother of George, A Most Violent Year) for the first time, crafts a sci-fi picture whose visual grace creates an almost spiritual atmospheric impact. When we see a shot of one of these shell-like crafts hovering anachronistically amidst towers and high-rises - reminiscent of that [redacted] sitting in the same position during those interstitial moments in Villeneuve's brilliant Enemy - it's a telling reminder of Arrival's contrast to other cinematic tales of extraterrestrial visitation. The spaceship hovering in mid-air in the big city is a Hollywood staple. But in this case, it's not there to amaze us or scare us, but to delicately remind us who we are, and were, and can be.