Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Denis Villeneue latest film, Arrival, is a welcome entry in today’s cinematic landscape. It’s not a sequel, a remake, or part of a franchise (though it is based on Ted Chiang’s short story, ‘Story of your Life’). Instead, it’s a film that takes worn premise premise -alien arrival- and turns it into an intelligent sci-fi film with a great female character and an essential message.
Arrival begins by introducing the main character, Louise Banks. Louise is a celebrated linguist who appears to be mourning the death of her daughter when the aliens arrive. She is recruited to come to one of the 12 arrival sites to decipher the alien language, and find out why the aliens are here. When miscommunication leads to flared anxieties, Louise takes it upon herself to communicate with the aliens. And when the purpose of their visit is revealed, it is a genuinely shocking development; it enriches the film by giving the events new context and emotional depth.
Most alien films are based on spectacle, from the explosions of Independence Day to the spectacular ship in Close Encounters. Director Villeneue, however, opts for performance and atmosphere rather than special effects. The “action” scenes of the film are the communication sessions, as Louise and others work to speak to the aliens (known as Heptapods), and eventually decipher their language. The tension comes from the human conflict. We see glimpses of panic in footage of unrest around the world and online conspiracy theorists (including an Alex Jones proxy), but most of the conflict comes from communication and miscommunication. When China and other nations go dark, implying an impending use of force, the viewers realize that the humans are more of a threat than the Heptapods.
The film succeeds not just on a storytelling level, but on a technical level. Montana makes for a perfect setting; the uninhabited stretches of land and mountains covered in fog create an isolated, almost otherworldly landscape. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson provides possibly the best sci-fi score since Under the Skin, creating an atmospheric, ambient sound. The ships are not overly designed, rather large black discs eerily suspended in the air. The inside of the craft echoes 2001 and Alien, with a long black hallway with grooved walls, and a large white window in which the humans observe the Heptapods. The Heptapods themselves aren’t little green men or the nightmares that are HR Giger’s Xenomorphs. They are large cephalopod creatures that float ethereally and speak with whale-like moans. Despite being CGI, their presence feels real.
The human cast is excellent. Amy Adams delivers another great performance as Louise Banks. She plays Louise with a quiet yet powerful intelligence. She knows when and how to push back when her work or abilities are questioned, and gives her the resilience of Ripley in Alien. Jeremy Renner is likable as Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist. In a different film, Renner’s character would be the hero, the rival, or the doubter. Instead, he respects Louise and is willing to collaborate with her. Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg are good as Colonel Weber and Agent Halpern, respectively. Unfortunately, they aren’t given much to do besides listen to, and then act as opposition to Louise. They are mainly side characters in Louise’s story.
Since this is a sci-fi story, that fact that it belongs to Louise is powerful. While the sci-fi genre is filled with great female voices (Mary Shelley, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood), women often aren’t the main characters when it comes to sci-fi films. And when we do have women on screen, they are defined more by their physical strength and action than their intelligence. The “strong women” characters are not dumb, but the roles would be defined as action roles- traditionally “male” roles in the realm of cinema. Ripley in Aliens, Sarah Conner in Terminator 2, and even Ryan Stone in Gravity can be defined as action roles. Despite being multidimensional characters, they are admired and remembered for their “toughness” than other traits they possess (bravery, maternal instinct, professional skills, quick thinking).
The role of Louise is not an “action role”. She never once throws a punch or fires a gun. Her strength is language, the ability to communicate. She is one of the best in her field, is confident in her work, and willing to do what she can to stop an interstellar conflict. She solves the issue by talking to the Heptapods, and using her knowledge to change minds. Her show of force is a show of intelligence and understanding.
‘Arrival’ is a story of brains and heart over brawn. That’s refreshing enough, and it’s even more refreshing that the main character and problem solver, is a woman. A woman respected for her skill, fearless in the face of the unknown and defuses a potential war using communication. With the events of the past few weeks, Arrival is perfectly timed. It’s a film that argues against brute force, ignorance, and isolationism. It’s a wonderful, almost therapeutic vision.