Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.
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Running time: 115 minutes
Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.
The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.
The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.
The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.
Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.
Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.
Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.
But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.
Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.
The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.
The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.