Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay. Eric Heisserer (based on ‘The Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang)
How long has the science-fiction genre portrayed the arrival of extraterrestrial life on Earth? In 1898, H.G.Wells’ famous novel War of the Worlds imagined the encounter between an aggressive, technologically superior alien race decimating the major contemporary imperial power on Earth within a few days. Yet it is due to our invisible millennia-long struggle to survive on this planet that wins out over the alien overlords. The most insignificant elements defy technological power and the ability to dominate others. Nearly a century later, in 1977, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind deals with a strange but amiable encounter with an alien species, humanity finally proves its worth to enter the wider universe. Of course, aside from the tantalising sensation we experience wondering ‘what are the aliens going to look like?’ and ‘why are they here?’, first-contact is usually a reflection on us: who are we and what will we do at that moment? Arrival, an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s science-fiction novella The Story of Your Life, approaches the encounter using a variety of intriguing concepts, primarily concerning linguistics, while also reflecting back on humanity’s struggle to communicate with itself. However, director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer mar this interesting take on a sci-fi motif with a bias toward American exceptionalism that contradicts its unifying message.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an acclaimed linguist, is brought in by US military Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) when twelve gigantic oval spacecraft arrive inexplicably on Earth. While global tensions increase at the uncertainty of the extraterrestrial’s appearance and purposes, Banks alongside scientist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) attempt to converse with the alien species inside the ship. Under pressure to decipher the alien language, Banks and Donnelly begin a conversation that has profound implications for humanity and its future. While all the tropes of classic sci-fi genre are here, from the slow, palpitating lead up to Banks’ first encounter to the multiple-screen global media coverage, using linguistics is an innovative concept that offers unexpected avenues for the film to explore and exploit. As with Christopher Nolan’s use of dream and interstellar travel theory in Inception and Interstellar to tell quite conventional stories, Heisserer is focusing on the theoretical relationship between language, thought and consciousness to portray a sentimental story that is concerned with emotional risk and loss. It is difficult to convey how this comes together without spoiling the film. The communication difficulties between humans are also raised through historical analogies and later when international co-operation starts to collapse over a misunderstanding in translation. In a cliche but uplifting message, Heisserer emphasises the need for global collaboration though this occurs without the usual solidarity when the world goes to war against a hostile alien threat. Writing against convention yet not entirely original, it is the humans that are the threat here.
But Heisserer and Villeneuve also engage in problematic stereotyping of current global relations and, a presumably unconscious, depiction of American exceptionalism. As such, China and Russia are portrayed from the outset as militarily aggressive where the US military, as represented by Weber and the only slightly odious CIA Agent Halpen (Michael Stuhlbarg) are merely benign and defensive. While there is an attempt to portray the reactionary US right-wing media and its incitements to violence, the US political-military establishment is shown as moderate and considerate in its attempt to communicate with the aliens with an open, passive approach. Conversely, the Chinese political establishment is represented entirely through General Shang (Tzi Ma) who attempts speaking with the aliens through the Chinese board game Mahjongg, suggesting a combative mode of communication that will result in conflict. There is no other frame of reference for either China or Russia and as such they treated as the instigators of global discord according to the America perspective, a point which is never addressed or challenged in the film. Even when Ridley Scott’s saccharine sci-fi film The Martian similarly echoed the need for international unity it did so without reducing China to a stereotypically authoritarian, military dictatorship. It must also be noted that in the aforementioned historical analogies made, silence is gifted to America’s own colonial history which could have been referenced to level the stance taken here. The implication of American exceptionalism is two-fold: firstly, that the US is and has only ever been a defensive and responsible force in the world and, secondly, that global unity should be led by the responsive approach only exemplified by America and its Western allies (the film does deign at one point that US-ally Pakistan makes some headway in the translation process). While not only patently untrue in reality, such bias work to undermine the otherwise progressive idea that mutual understanding can eventually be reached and shared through language, regardless of perceived divisions of nation and culture.
Adams is the powerful centre of this film, a restrained and confident performance that expresses both the emotional and intellectual toll on our protagonist. Avoiding the stereotype of academic emotional repression, Banks is relatable and strong and Adams’ performance has real range: from vulnerability when she is under and within the alien craft to holding her own amongst the military command. Renner, Whitaker and almost everyone else are just functional, moving the plot along without much humour or irony. Renner’s Donnelly appears set up to be the scientific foil to Banks’ linguistic focus (“Language is the cornerstone of civilisation…you’re wrong, its science”) but this never transpires into genuine conflict of approaches to the aliens and he isn’t given much else to do. While it is refreshing to see the male scientist take back-seat to the female academic, the rest of the cast are peripheral and, frankly, uninteresting.
Bradford Young’s cinematography is sober but also visually beautiful. There is something ominous yet ethereal about the smoothly shaped ships suspended above the Earth’s surface, given suitable time to impress upon us in panorama over the Montana vistas. The opening sequences are a slow, tense lead-up to the ‘arrival’, evocative and disorientating through inverted frames and Johann Johannsson’s eerie, pulsating soundtrack. Credit must also go to the design of the ship interiors, it is initially reminiscent of H.R.Giger’s Alien but without the sexual connotations. All of these allusions appear to be deliberate misdirections, employed throughout the film which lead us to make assumptions that are then subverted. The use of cuts to warmly-tinted flashbacks are also misleading, though once again this review will leave the audience to find out why.
For all its conceptual innovation and deft execution, Arrival remains vague and convoluted, especially concerning its central conceit. When the truth begins to dawn upon the audience, the major revelation could be followed by laughter, especially in the film’s denouement. No doubt film viewers, critics and academics will wonder over the ideas invoked, but as with all engrossing sci-fi in the past, this will be less to do with extraterrestrial life than ourselves. However, in reproducing the tensions within current geopolitical relations between the US, China and Russia so reductively, Arrival fails to be sincere in its hope for an inclusive, peaceful humanity that is capable of transcending its current linguistic, national and emotional constraints.