Thursday, November 17, 2016

Non-Zero-Sum Game: Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival

Amy Adams (right) in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

In most science fiction films, we know what the aliens want. They want to annihilate or enslave us (War of the Worlds, Independence Day); they want to befriend our youth (E.T.); or they want to use our oh-so-soft human bodies as incubators for their offspring (Alien). But what if they showed up unannounced one day, and gave no indication of what they wanted? How would the world respond? How would we go about trying to discern their intentions? That’s the question that drives the plot of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, but – and this should come as no surprise to any follower of his work – the plot is just the jumping-off point. It’s so much more than a simple “first contact” yarn: it’s one of the finest science-fiction films of recent memory.

Its subject matter, based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life,” is the clay with which Villeneuve, along with cinematographer Bradford Young and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, shapes a work of cinematic art. But the reason Arrival earns its title as a great piece of science fiction is its emphasis on technical detail and scientific accuracy, which places it neatly into the “hard science fiction” category that so many enthusiasts casually apply to their favourite properties. It’s the whole package: a beautifully crafted movie that halts the breath on the walk out of the theatre and rings in the cranium for days afterward. I had my doubts that Villeneuve could outdo his own Sicario. I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, in what will surely be considered the role of her career) is a linguist recruited by the U.S. military who, when a fleet of twelve alien vessels (called “shells” by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber) touch down in seemingly random places across the globe, must help humanity determine what these visitors want, where they came from, and a myriad of other answers that are much less immediately important than those first two. Trouble is, these visitors – which Louise eventually calls “heptopods,” for their seven-limbed bodies – seem to be just as ill-equipped to communicate with humanity as we are to deal with them. With global tensions rising as hotter heads prevail overseas, Louise begins to succumb to the pressure of learning how to speak to the aliens, as exhaustion overtakes her and her perception of time starts to, shall we say, waver. She loses sleep. Memories of her daughter invade her waking mind. She makes progress in deciphering their “written” language – but time is running out.

The film’s ticking-clock element – the threat of open conflict with the heptopods posed by rash action from countries like China and Russia – is continually referenced in terse, suspenseful sequences where government and military officials stare at each other over webcams, sharing what little info they’ve gleaned, sallow and grim-faced with exhaustion and fear. While I may sound like I'm describing a Roland Emmerich movie, in the hands of a director like Villeneuve these scenes aren’t the Hollywood window dressing you would expect. The game of broken telephone being played between nations is a perfect mirror to the “game” that Louise is playing with the aliens, and expresses a broader, very sobering doubt the film has about our ability as a species to weather this kind of unexpected stress with patience and rationality. We’re not ready for this, and we all know it. The question is, who will be the first to crack under the pressure?

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival.

It won’t be Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the theoretical physicist assigned to Louise’s team, although he’s right there alongside her in the shell every 18 hours. His jocular charm, shakily masking the fatigue and worry that he too feels, is buoyed by his scientific curiosity and might be more crucial to keeping Louise on an even keel than either of them know. Every scene that Ian and Louise share is an expression of the larger idea of communication, whether it’s a meeting of the minds between two professionals or an unspoken acknowledgment of the need for human contact and support in the midst of a terrifying situation. Arrival is a love story, to be sure, but absolutely not in the way you think.

In a way, it’s the anti-Interstellar (an apple whose shine has somewhat come off for me): it’s similarly hopeful about humanity’s ability to transcend our worst impulses and endure our own self-annihilation, but Arrival takes us to this conclusion without resorting to a confused and half-earned message of hippie-dippy love from the cosmos. Just as The Martian did, Arrival posits that smart people working together to solve the problems in front of them is the only way we’re gonna survive this mess we’ve made. That attitude applies to everything from the clutter of our daily lives to our very survival as a species, and Villeneuve has found perhaps the only way to explore the breadth of that spectrum while still containing it neatly within a two-hour movie, with clean, heart-wrenching emotional throughlines. Arrival is as much The Tree of Life as Contact. There are notes of Close Encounters here – but Villeneuve asks the questions that Spielberg left on the cutting-room floor.

Villeneuve does something quietly, astonishingly brilliant with Arrival: he uses the specific phrases and syllables and conjunctions of the cinematic language to express a story about language itself. He uses editing to speak to our perception of time – both as viewers in the moment and as people living it, day after day. He uses visual elements like light, colour, and basic shape to give voice to multifaceted thought, just as the heptopods do, exploring the aching complexity of human communication through the most alien form of communication we might have ever seen in cinema. It’s a remarkable marriage of form and function, working as one towards the common goal of expressing the most basic and relatable emotions we can feel as jaded moviegoers. Its surface-level elements are wonderfully realized, sure – it’s a film of rock-solid performances, sharp dialogue, confident direction, beautiful scoring, tension and excitement and sadness and joy – but what lies underneath, waiting for you to decipher it, is what makes Arrival such special sci-fi cinema.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.


  1. Just saw the movie. Just found your article. Spot on. :)

    I'm going to have to re-watch this now to see if there were clues as to who Jeremy Renner's character was prior to the reveal.

    Feels a little Fight Club-ish here, except in a very positive sense... and w/o single frames of nudity, lol.

    1. Haha, I know what you mean! Arrival certainly does reward multiple viewings. It's so rich with detail.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. It is true ... you really have to watch this movie several times because you will find new clues and tidbits every time you watch .. there is something hypnotic about the audio of the aliens along with the visual concept .. the audio reminds me of whale sound .. is that what he edited into it ?
    It is so unusual and so beyond what we conceive as communication .. the complexity is fascinating ... one of my most favorite movies to date.
    It takes a lot to get my attention and hold it when it comes to this type of genre because it is my favorite, I hold high standards for an intelligent slant on the "what if .." scenario.