“Arrival” is an intelligent 2016 science fiction drama by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. It opened citywide on November 11, 2016. The film was shot in Montreal. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.
“Arrival” is based on Ted Chiang’s book “Story of Your Life” with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. Bradford Young (Selma) is responsible for the beautiful cinematography. Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson scored the film.
This is a refreshing return to old-school science fiction. Thinkers will find some big questions in the story. Its pleasure comes from these puzzles and the plot twist. Like the best science fiction, “Arrival” asks big questions about how we live, and the future we are creating, for ourselves and for humankind.
“Arrival” is an intelligent slow-paced suspense drama that is beautifully shot with an engaging lead character.
The film is not about the aliens, but about what the human characters are going through and how their actions affect both their lives and the lives of all humankind.
The plot device of alien ships landing around the world references the beginning of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End.” The film makes some visual nods to Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was also based on a Clarke story.
It is refreshing to watch a film that mostly avoids Hollywood formula. “Arrival” is a critic’s favorite. It arrives with a 96% rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It remains to be seen how the movie will play with audiences conditioned to hyper-violent comic book science fiction.
A dozen alien ships arrive at various places on earth. Nobody knows whether their intentions are good or bad. This is the story of a team who tries to figure out why they are here.
Forest Whitaker plays a military colonel leading the team.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics expert brought in to figure out the alien language. She suffers flashbacks about the loss of her child and then her husband.
Ian (Jeremy Renner) is a physics professor on the team. He develops a crush on Amy, but stands back with respect.
All the nations of earth are dealing with the arrival in their own way. Some intend to attack the alien ships. Part of the movie’s tension is solving the puzzle of why they are here before war starts.
A door opens on the ships every 18 hours. The team ventures inside. They find themselves at a large screen.
The aliens communicate through a written character script on the screen. Dr. Banks uses her woman’s intuition to establish contact. She begins to absorb the alien’s written language. In this language, the act of writing actually affects the future. A small change in the writing, changes the future.
This idea references Chinese and Mayan written characters where small changes, change the meaning.
Perhaps the story’s writers are also commenting on how media, now mostly delivered on a screen, impacts our future. The amount of media writing devoted to Donald Trump certainly did.
Learning a language is not just learning the literal translations of words. It provides an entirely different way to understand and experience life. French-speaking Quebecois, living in English-speaking Canada understand this intuitively. After the end of Quebec’s secessionist battle in the 1990s, Quebecois have found a nicely balanced multicultural French & English existence.
Those of us who live in multicultural families know that language has its limits. Some things have to be actually felt to be understood. You see this in the movie. Being understood or not can make the difference between a memorable evening and one hell of a night.
The film ponders the East / West question of whether the course of our lives is predetermined or determined by the actions of our own free will. Being Chinese-American, the story’s author Ted Chiang certainly understands both points of view.
Because the alien’s written language affects the future, learning it causes Dr. Banks to see her own. With full knowledge of the deep pain her future holds (two of the worst pains a person can experience in life), Dr. Banks has to decide whether the other moments of great joy make the whole thing worth living.
Jorge Drexler lyrics “la ilusión de que vivir es indoloro” (the illusion that living is painless) from his song “Soledad,” remind us that each of us has to make the same decision every day.
About Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian director and writer.
He gained prominence with “Incendie” (2010). Villeneuve is best known for “Sicario” (2015) and “Prisoners” (2013). Villeneuve is scheduled to direct “Blade Runner 2049.” The sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” (1982) starring Harrison Ford is scheduled for release in 2017.