Whenever a first contact movie is out I can’t help but compare it to Contact. It remains the epitome of the subject matter for me. And Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival seems to directly challenge it.
Specifically, it challenges Carl Sagan’s idea on what our language to the aliens will be, should we ever meet them.
In Contact it was mathematics. Math is a universal language that transcends our personal flaws and holds no possibility of misunderstanding which makes it the logical choice for addressing another intelligent species for the first time.
In Arrival, a linguistics professor-Amy Adams suggests a different approach early on, to a theoretical physicist-Jeremy Renner:
Let’s try to talk to them before we throw equations at them.
The two seem to be the same if your goal is to establish whether you share a certain logic and ability for abstract thinking with another being of, well, anything, with math seeming the obvious approach. But Arrival argues the language of first contact should be something even more complex than math – something that is dangerously ambiguous, actually. A matter we hardly ever fully understand ourselves, in which we entrench our lives, and are in fact quite tragically governed by. It is the language of emotions. The bigger idea of the film is that emotions, as math, are universal. Heptapods have them. The Chinese have them.
It is not seven-legged aliens, but the Chinese that are crucial for conveying Arrival’s message and that is, yet again in a movie, that we need to start understanding each other as a species before we can truly understand anything beyond us. In that spirit, you can call the private number of your stereotyped, uniformed Chinese general and stop a planetary disaster – if you can tap into his emotions. And you can do that by telling him his dying wife’s last words. So you need to make it personal in order to share what is common, the film melodramatically suggests.
Once emotion prevails over ratio, we need to entice the right kind. And how do we do that? Well, Arrival calls upon yet another stereotype. The fight for understanding and cooperation is done through the battle of the sexes. Arrival’s main conflict seems to be set between the female and the male principle. A woman scientist infiltrates a tent full of aggressive, trigger-happy male soldiers and teaches them to ask questions first, shoot later (if needed). Obstacle after obstacle, it’s a woman going against your stereotypical male behaviour and winning the day for all humanity. We are suposed to see this as a metaphor of nurture triumphing over destruction. It is caregiving mother against warrior father. It is a lesson we have yet to learn, obviously, but I would personally prefer this movie to have been more about the meaning of first contact and the science behind achieving it rather than our well known shortcomings.
It could be that Denis Villeneuve delivers one of the best commercial movies of the year by making his least profound film yet. Although Arrival is literally dealing with symbols, there is no level of mind-boggling symbolism to decipher here like there is in Enemy. It deals with the tragedy of ignorance and violence but not as powerfully as in Incendies or Sicario. There is plenty of drama, but it is not as gripping as in Prisoners.
What was gripping for me was, once more, a sense of a perfect measure in Villeneuve’s filmmaking technique, whichever genre he might find himself in. With both what is seen and heard, there always seems to be just the right amount of anything, in terms of cinematography, in a Villeneuve film. The photography was stunning. The sound was pitch-perfect. The design of the spaceship was like a materialization of that minimalistic sufficiency. The heptapods were introduced in a similar manner and kept at just the right distance through out the film. (They immediately reminded me of the spider in Enemy. What is with Villeneuve and many-legged creatures? I like it and want to see more). This minimalist concept was continued with the anachronous language and its circular visual representation. In fact, semiotics and linguistics making it into mainstream Hollywood might be this film biggest achievement. Soon after Interstellar and The Martian, there is Arrival. It was long overdue to have science and scientists as our cinematic heroes and to have them frequently too.
The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang which I have not read) seems masterfully executed with exciting cuts between vision and reality, beautifully nuanced moods and sharp, concise dialog. A quietly intense performance by Amy Adams is followed by good supporting performances by Renner and Forest Whitaker. And there is that gripping “n-n-n-nah” song that sounds like the birth of a new language (it’s “Heptapod B” by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson).
As it reaches its finale, Arrival opens up some big questions in terms of the general story and seems to escape answering them by going into a familiar storytelling cliché which is, again, to make it personal. The story of a mother and her choice to have a child in spite knowing its life will end tragically has to be acknowledged as universally more important than the implications of aliens bestowing a time travelling language upon humanity.
Villeneuve said that he wanted to make a science fiction film for some time, although he could “never find the right thing” – until Arrival. Currently, he is filming the sequel to Blade Runner.