Director: Denis Villeneuve
12A | 1h 56min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi | 10 November 2016 (UK)
With his alien visitation movie Arrival, Enemy and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve has parked a couple of tanks of Christopher Nolan’s lawn. Known for his technical proficiency and penchant for eye-catching visuals, Villeneuve here has delivered a polished science fiction film that foregrounds ideas and questions rather than explosions, which works to create a sense of something “big” happening whilst never giving you all the answers as to what that something is. The film's origins lie in the novella Story of Your Life by the SF author Ted Chiang, which Villeneuve's screenwriter Eric Heisserer adapted. The mystery plays out over a big canvas (we stay primarily in America, but the movement of other global players are never far away), with sweeping camera movements over wide vistas creating a sense of the epic, all glossed over with slick - but never overused - digital effects. It’s an impressive beast, with bits and pieces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Independence Day in its DNA. Some elements introduced in the last act don’t quite gel though.
The always-reliable Amy Adams is a fine lead as Professor Louise Banks; a linguistics expert seconded by a panicky US military to guide their attempts to communicate with 12 giant alien spacecraft that have suddenly entered Earth’s atmosphere, and are now hanging sentinel over the planet in seemingly random locations. The scene in which Banks first notices the aliens arrival is well-crafted by Villeneuve; clearly engrossed in her own thoughts and not one to constantly check social media, Banks manages to get all the way to her lecture theatre, passing by clusters of frantically chatting students and walking through near-empty corridors, before she finally turns a television on after the few remaining students implore her to. Anyone who was late realising what was going on during 9/11 will relate to this representation of how epic, world-shifting events can bypass us when we are both turned inwards on ourselves and not minded to think our routines will change. As for why Banks seems so quiet and reserved, flashbacks (or what seem to be flashbacks) suggest the recent loss of a teen daughter to cancer. Her austere riverside apartment hints at a cold, lonely life. Despite the early foregrounding of these elements, Adams doesn’t get reduced a one-note character, instead providing an empathetic heart to a film which is quite moody and contemplative overall. Banks is a serious figure , but a curious and passionate one too.
The alien vessels, and their technology in general, are undeniably intriguing. The egg-like giant ships, hovering silently above the ground with no obvious means of propulsion, seem to be carved out of stone. All the US military and science figures clustered around the base of the ship (with the production design more than adequate to the task of creating a believable hive of activity; equipment tents, decontamination chambers and hubs of high definition screens) know is that every 18 hours a door opens in the ship, allowing access to shaft where, somehow, there is zero gravity. Above that is an antechamber where a stable earth environment is mysteriously maintained. Beyond the glass at the end of the room, they await. But despite their entrance to Earth’s atmosphere evoking the alien invasion in Independence Day, Villeneuve’s film soon asserts that is more an “alien invasion?” type of movie. As Banks is recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and swiftly sent off to the US landing site (a stunning Montana plain bordered by strange, dense cloud formations) to begin communications, the alien’s motives remain mysterious. Their ships send out no understandable transmissions, no aliens exit the craft, and no attack occurs. But are they scientists or tourists? Why have they landed all over earth? What do they want?
The aliens themselves are revealed quite quickly to us, meaning the real mystery and tension soon attach to the question of their motives, and also to the fact that Banks and her team are painfully aware that across the globe other science teams are trying to communicate frantically too. Who will get there first, and will they both understand the aliens clearly and share their knowledge honestly? The problems of there being no one unified Earth agency designed to do this are soon made clear (which ties into the film's overarching theme of the importance of communication and understanding), and the presence of the CIA watching over Weber’s team is a reminder that rivalry and suspicion inevitably is in the mix, despite the 12 different nations beginning their investigations with info sharing channels open between them. It perhaps isn't too surprising that the screenplay seeks a dramatic ticking clock in the form of the growing risk that another foreign power (somewhat inevitably, it’s the Chinese) might fly off the handle by assuming the aliens are on earth to either attack humanity or provoke the nations of the world to turn on each other to curry their favour. What is refreshing is how Villeneuve's film visualises both the alien’s truly unique, symbol-based written language, and how it lays out the challenges of two-way interpretation and understanding when there is no common ground to start from.
The aliens communicate using the novel technique of projecting swirls of ink, which they form into circular symbols in the air, with the most imperceptible changes to the designs possibly signifying huge differences in meaning. Banks and Donnelly cannot talk to the aliens using vocalisations, as the aliens cannot utter anything like the same sounds we can, so they literally have to go back to first principles and figure out a way to match the symbols to our own use of written language. The chances for misunderstanding are, obviously, huge. Crucially, Villeneuve’s film doesn’t allow a ‘cheat’ by having the aliens understand musical notes or mathematics, as in Spielberg’s Close Encounters. This really does encourage the audience to think about how hard it would be to start talking to another race from such a low rung on the ladder, even if Banks and Donnelly have a whole batch of impressive-looking tech to help them: iPads, digital cameras, image analysis software and, ironically, a canary in a cage to provide a final foolproof check that the aliens are keeping the atmosphere in the antechamber safe . So interesting is this part of the film in fact, that it is something of a shame that the screenplay - understandably - has to elide much of the grind of actually figuring the hard stuff out. By the final act, there is a sense things have suddenly jumped forwards, with Banks able to have complex conversations with the visitors which feel like a huge step forwards from the fumbling we only saw twenty minutes ago.
The race against the doomsday clock of growing global paranoia certainly keeps the film energised and the stakes high, as well as keeping the central message - about how humans too often talk to each other without understanding - appropriately foregrounded. The few niggling problems that do emerge are mostly to do with certain last-act revelations about how the alien’s communication methods might not just involve this completely novel use of symbols, but might actually transcend certain dimensional boundaries. Maybe the Smoke Screen missed a key line of dialogue, but the real implications of the “WTF” realisation by Bank’s character seemed elusive. It just wasn’t clear how this fit into the film’s overarching themes, or exactly how the aliens were using this ability for their own ends. It felt like an ambitious attempt to encourage viewers to rethink what they had just seen, hobbled by being poorly layered into the narrative. In short; a problem of communication, one that Professor Banks would probably have picked up on.