VOD film review: Arrival
James R | On 18, Mar 2017
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
If you have no word for “blue”, what would you call that colour? What if you called blue “green”? How would you have a conversation with someone else, who does know the word “blue”, about it?
Language is essential to life. Colours, nouns, names, verbs, abstract concepts, such as memory, love or time; without language, our brains have no way of processing existence – or, more specifically, talking about it with other people. Language can define a community, it can exclude outsiders, and, at its most primal, cognitive level, it can, to some degree, influence the way we think.
The thought of aliens touching down on our planet, then, is a linguist’s dream. So why do so many science fiction movies brush over it? Not so with Arrival. Denis Villeneuve’s film embraces that grammatical nerdiness with intelligence and emotion, taking the logic of first contact to profound heights not seen since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (As with Spielberg’s classic, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is a central part of Arrival’s spell.)
Amy Adams plays Louise, a language expert who is hired to translate and communicate with the newly-arrived extra-terrestrials – and what emerges is a fascinating journey of discovery, as she and a colleague (Jeremy Renner) gradually unpick the creatures’ swirling circles of ink-like letters. What begins as a study of content, though – symbols, labels and definitions – evolves into an earnest exploration of form, as Eric Heisserer’s script understands that order and relationships between objects are just as fundamental to any tongue.
All this is beautifully distilled into moments that are at once simple and complex. Adams, who can convey so much with just her face, transmits endless hope, excitement and trepidation through the letterbox of her safety suit, holding placards with words like “HUMAN” for the aliens to see. There are layers to each sign Villeneuve places on screen, but the director grasps the importance of admiring the surface before delving into the depths. He builds up to the eventual first contact through two elemental motifs: the nail-biting crawl from a rectangle of light into a looming square of darkness, then the equally nerve-wracking journey from darkness to a chasm of light. The best shot in the entire film may just be the dizzying sight of people walking up the corridor to the aliens’ ship; a balance of the everyday and the otherworldly that bodes very well for Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel.
The building of scientific bridges, meanwhile, is deftly contrasted with the breakdown of communications between humanity’s divided nations, as countries begin to translate the foreign messages they receive in different ways. A phone call halfway through demonstrates language’s power to bring separate branches of human existence together – and that positive message of convergence and union is where Arrival truly astounds. This isn’t a blockbuster of sudden revelations, but slow epiphanies, a tale that allows for the nuance of meaning to dawn gradually. The result is a beautifully composed genre movie that elevates the usual alien invasion cliches into something more philosophical. Don’t miss it.