Released 2016. Director: Denis Villeneuve
THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE FLOW IN ONE DIRECTION – or do they? Arrival unfolds in two narrative strands. The main one is about human contact with aliens, while the secondary story comprises a mother's memories of her daughter through the years. It’s not until late in the movie we realise what appears to be a mother’s reminiscence hasn’t even occurred yet.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, Arrival is about UFOs, close encounters, aliens, and much more. It starts on the day when twelve oval-shaped vessels appear around the world, including one hovering just above ground at a remote part of Montana where the fog rolls in like rivulets of cloud.
The US military assembles a team of experts to get up close to the visitors. Among them is Dr Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics tasked with the daunting responsibility of communicating with the aliens and deciphering their language to find out just what it is they want from us. Are they friendly? Are they going to blow us up? Why are they here?
The visitors are clearly way more advanced than the human race. We see, for instance, that they can manipulate gravity to levitate Earthlings into a ‘meeting room’ in their eerily spacious craft. Yet when it comes to communication between those who speak in different tongues, there’s no quick and easy way and we resort to the basic “Me Tarzan. You Jane” method with a white board and a marker pen.
Despair not, for we have the smartest humans face to face with very cooperative aliens, who are dubbed heptapods for their appearance. Louise begins to decode how the aliens communicate, analysing the graphic symbols that appear to untrained eyes like coffee cup stains. As Louise learns to interpret the alien lexicon, she also experiences flashbacks of the times she spends with her daughter, from birth through childhood to her death.
Communicating with the aliens is a laborious process and governments around the world soon run out of patience. In fear and escalating distrust, humanity stands at the brink of war with a higher intelligence. Louise, now the most trusted and empathetic human to the heptapods, is ‘beamed up’ for an exclusive, almost hallucinatory encounter to learn the true purpose of their presence.
Arrival is an alien-visitation movie that doesn’t involve firing laser beams or incinerating screaming hordes of terrified humans. Denis Villeneuve’s direction is a thoughtful and deliberate procedural into the process of establishing contact, seen through the eyes of one woman who’s conversing with an absent daughter. In other words, this is a deeply personal reflection set against a seismic planetary event.
As Louise Banks, Amy Adams is intuitive, precise and perceptive to the extraordinary transformation she's becoming a part of. Her apparent calmness belies the trepidation and risks she puts herself in, as Louise gradually becomes the movie’s emotional focus. The rest of the cast, including Jeremy Renner as the physicist, Forest Whitaker as the army colonel, Michael Stulbarg as the Secretary of Defense and Tzi Ma as the leader of the Chinese contingent, all deliver low-key and grounded interpretation of their characters. Any posturing, grandstanding or a rousing speech would have ruined the tone, and the cast are acutely aware of that.
The alien language provides the movie with its signature visual motif. The heptapods “write” by lifting one of their limbs, which opens up like a seven-pointed star that expels ink, and their “words” simply hang in the air.
Someone in the movie says the process of learning a new language rewires the brain. Naturally, we see the world through the language we use. So when Louise grasps the alien grammar, she begins to perceive the world – and time – the way the heptapods do, which is non-linear.
Chiang’s short story focuses heavily on the relationship between Louise and her daughter Hannah. Eric Heisserer’s adaptation maintains this intimate angle while also injecting the geopolitical repercussions of the alien visitation to spice up the proceeding for the screen. When the aliens are declared enemies and China leads the charge in hostility, the action aspect of this Hollywood studio production boldly puts the focus on a linguist and how she can save humanity through the use of language, ours and the new gift from our interstellar visitors.
Arrival is as much about an encounter with an alien species as it is about our capacity to experience love, joy and pain, knowing very well what’s going to happen. Courtesy of the gift from the heptapods, Louise is aware of how her life will turn out. The question asked is whether we would change anything if we could tell the future. Louise’s answer is to embrace what she knows is coming her way, even if it involves heartbreak and sorrow.
Is the future written in the stars? Are our actions pre-determined? Does free will exist? To quote from the story: “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?”
Arrival is a story that's global in scale and scope, even cosmic, one that answers the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Its heart, however, is found in a personal account from one woman’s words, notes to her unborn child that speak of the curiosity and empathetic nature of the human mind, and our need to understand, accept and experience the mystery of life, from alien encounters to motherhood.
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