Another recent sci-fi film that I missed out on in theaters, another film that I can now check off my list of movies to see: Arrival.
Arrival is an absolutely beautiful film. It’s so riveting from beginning to end, and it is artful in inducing a series of disorienting and authentic perspective shifts for both characters and audience throughout its duration. Plus, the core cast is great: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker each deliver excellent performances.
Dr. Louise Banks is a linguist brought in by the U.S. military to attempt to communicate with new alien arrivals, aliens with technology far beyond our understanding. She must attempt to find out their purpose on Earth–before the military of the U.S. or any other visited country gets too jumpy and sends the world into international (or maybe even interstellar) war. While the linguistic challenges are fascinating in and of themselves, the truly remarkable feat of the film is to tell a story with events from various points in time occurring (for the viewer and eventually for Dr. Banks) more or less simultaneously and influencing events out of chronological sequence. With the addition of some very bizarre dream segments, we’re not sure if Dr. Banks is losing her mind or on the brink of a colossal breakthrough in perceiving time through alien influence until the climax.
Big spoiler: we are introduced to Dr. Banks through her memories of her deceased daughter, but we ultimately learn that these are scenes from the future. Framing Dr. Banks’s motherhood and loss as a past series of events, with her daughter’s death not just a memory but the event that narratively kicks off the film, makes real the nonlinear approach to time that the heptapod aliens perceive, and which Dr. Banks eventually perceives. And it says a lot about how we perceive the universe and how we can find meaning in it that isn’t quite spiritualist but nonetheless feels true and good. To remove the linear perspective to time makes each moment significant and infinite and never truly gone. There’s a little bit of Christian mysticism and Buddhism and a little bit of Slaughterhouse Five in there at least, I think. (The film is written by Eric Heisserer and based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang–I haven’t read anything by Chiang, but I’d like to at least read this story to see what he did with this and how compatible the film’s plot and themes are with its source material.)
Despite attempting to realistically portray a military response to an alien arrival–despite attempting to portray the world’s reaction in general to an alien arrival–I appreciated (a) that the military’s efforts did more harm than good, without ever having any clear villains (everyone, including the Colonel and the CIA officer, the Chinese General Shang, even the idiot soldiers who decide to bomb the aliens after listening to too much of an InfoWars knockoff, is acting from a place that seems rational if considered from their point of view, and no one is purely bloodthirsty); and (b) that the film becomes increasingly surreal in its composition as we are exposed to ever more alien images and ideas. To elaborate a little more on that latter point: the realism of the initial setting makes the bizarre and magical events that increasingly consume the narrative feel grounded.
Wonderful cinematography and score tie together to create a sense of unease, tension, and disorientation. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Bradford Young as director of photography and music by Jóhann Jóhannsson. They work well together to pair image and sound in support of theme and mood. The music swells with unusual sounds and pulsing tension; sometimes it sounds part of the alien ship itself, sometimes it sounds more organic or more artificial, and in the climactic moments it becomes eerily human with the presence of almost unearthly a capella vocals. The weird view angles when initially crossing the gravity-defying entry tunnel of the alien spaceship, or the initially divided and distant shots of aliens and humans, kept far apart across a great space, help us feel what the characters are feeling in the moment, in a way that simply presenting the events from a greater remove could never do. Despite the disorienting perspectives, the camerawork itself is always solid, with typically excellent composition and a clear sense of flow. I could always tell what was happening, no matter what was happening.
Arrival makes me think a little bit of Interstellar. Both initially seem like hard sci-fi, confronting a bizarre and reality-bending event that pushes the edges of our understanding with technologies that seem magic. But Interstellar cracks in the final act, becoming quantum theology and feel-good spiritualism. Arrival is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming (how fitting–the audience, hopefully, embraces a holistic view of all moments past, present, and future just as Banks manages to do), and it certainly offers a perspective that could be used in support of a spiritualist message, but it never gets soft or cheesy. You might be more or less willing to accept how Dr. Banks gains this new perspective, but fundamentally the film only suggests that we humans have a limited and linear view of time because that’s what our perception is limited to, not that it is the only way to conceive of time.
The stretching of linguistic theory makes the story work. I’m not a linguist, so I was willing to accept how far they took ideas about perception being influenced by language. Maybe linguists felt differently about the movie–though still, I’d bet any linguist would still love to see someone in their profession centered as a hero in such a slick film. And sci-fi fans everywhere can rejoice in a tense story of alien first contact that doesn’t quickly give way to interstellar conflict.
Having a complete view of the film’s plot, I feel that further rewatches would be rewarding to further recontextualize certain elements. Which is a reminder that film and literature give us the opportunity to perceive events through temporal non-linearity on a regular basis, even if we rarely stop to think of it that way.