‘Language is the cornerstone of our civilization.’
So begins the book written by Dr. Louise Banks, the protagonist of the latest film from Denis Villenueve, who has been making his mark felt in the world of cinema with a string of thought-provoking films including Prisoners, Sicario and Enemy. Arrival is based on a short novel by Ted Chiang, titled ‘Story of your Life’, which seems a more appropriate name for this all-encompassing film than the uninspired ‘Arrival’, which seems to suggest little more than an invasion. Taking on heavy themes of bridging languages, colonisation and questions that hit the core of our existence and our perceptions of reality, this latest child of the science fiction genre carries them confidently and with the seriousness they deserve, all the while having us hooked to a plot that gets more interesting with each passing second.
Our story begins with the arrival of the shells – the twelve mysterious extraterrestrial ships that have descended around the world overnight, leaving the governments scrambling to find answers. Dr. Lousie Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, is called in by the U.S. government to help them in establishing communication with the alien species (termed ‘heptapods’ in the story), essentially to discover the purpose of their arrival lest they be unprepared for an invasion. Accompanied by military theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and senior U.S. military officer Colonel G T Weber (Forest Whitaker), she establishes contact and proceeds to understand and learn the language of the heptapods, which proves to be distinctly different and more complex than any language here on Earth. As the words I opened this review with indicate, the crux of this film is language and communication (if that wasn’t already clear from the protagonist being a linguist!) and it is through the scientific exchange between Dr. Louise and the heptapods that we, along with her, open our minds against the reaches of what we think we know.
While the scientists are working overtime to understand and obtain information from the alien species, political tensions are also seen to be rising between the twelve governments involved in engaging with the alien spacecrafts. Having read the novel on which this film is based, just ahead of the release of the trailers, I was quite afraid that the movie would take the generic Hollywood approach to invasion stories, and waste its precious time on unnecessary political tangents. Taking the story beyond the book is a risky choice, and not always the right one. But I would definitely tip my hat to the genius of Eric Heisserer, who takes an already great piece of science fiction by hand and leads it down to its logical conclusion. Every detail added and political conflict introduced only widens the scope of the film, without compromising the core themes which question human perception and reality as we know it. In fact, the essential secret of the film, once revealed, is used cleverly to influence the political happenings surrounding the ‘invasion’. The infusion of political powers and invasion threats emphasize the dividedness of our species and the dangers of distrust, a statement more relevant today than ever. Although the actual science fiction in the story is, well, rather fictitious and far-fetched, the more grounded realities of global disharmony and our instinct of choosing guns over words resound closer to home and highlight the need for a change.
No matter the species-wide scope of these political statements, the heart of the movie lies in the impact of this arrival on our individual existences, and in particular, that of Dr. Louise – a role that Amy Adams completely immerses herself in, as her expressions guide us through the slow revelation of the plot. Playing with concepts which we tend to consider universal, Arrival attempts to expand our perceptions of language, time and minds themselves, as each turn in the story opens a new stream of thought which, chances are, you have not explored before. Villeneuve is masterful in his translation to screen of a story I thought to be unfilmable, and exceeds expectations in evoking the same questions and emotions that Ted Chiang has so brilliantly penned down. He constantly switches between close-up shots of the characters and the dwarfing wide angle shots, to accentuate the scope that reaches all of humanity. Admittedly, the film is led by the character of Dr. Louise, and it is her that the direction follows, managing to keep us locked into her state of mind through well-framed images and the eerie movement of the camera, which takes a life of its own. Casting a disturbing aura around the entire feature is the phenomenal score by Johann Johannsson, who has previously worked with Villeneuve on both Prisoners and Sicario. In a stroke of creative genius, Johannsson uses mostly vocals to create the haunting music, quite apt for a film centered on the idea of language and communication. (A particularly spine-chilling moment for me came about halfway through the film, when the original musical piece ‘Heptapod B’ crept in slowly through a million voices, for which alone I feel his score deserving of all the awards.)
It would be an understatement to say that Villeneuve and his team have failed to disappoint or dilute the original story, but the creative decisions made and liberties taken make it a masterpiece in its own right. Employing a perfectly suited colour palette and breathtaking cinematography, the director has birthed a gorgeous looking film, which will make you lean forward to notice all the fine details. He is also set to direct the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner next year, and this film only goes to further prove his case, if the existing evidence was not enough. Arrival asks many questions that push you to reflect on and discuss for hours after exiting the theatre, something that all good science fiction must do and forms the essence of it. With the help of a terrific cast and an ominous atmosphere, Villenueve’s film engulfs your mind completely in its new ideas, without a single sour note to take you out of it. A truly satisfying movie, and above that, a deeply moving experience, Arrival is a testament to great filmmaking, and above all, the potential of great science fiction.