In our day and age, the very idea that we may not be alone in this universe is one which not only inspires romance in the way we see ourselves as a part of the greater creation but also infuses fear of the unknown forces which may exist outside our realm. Movies like Independence Day, Men in Black and one of my personal favorites – Signs, originate from the school of thought that Alien beings are more likely to be malevolent and destructive than descend from the heavens to shake hands and exchange intergalactic gifts (No, Santa is not an Alien, if that’s what you’re thinking).
Denis Villeneuve is a master in delving deep into the Human condition. From the much under-rated noir thriller Enemy to the emotional drama Prisoners, Villeneuve came into the limelight only through his acclaimed 2015 Crime thriller Sicario which garnered three Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Sound editing. There is a common thread interspersed through each of those films – a minute understanding of how people interact with certain symbols in their lives and how their existence is defined by them. That does seem like a far-fetched definition of his work but think about it this way as an analogy – There’s a poster in your room which is a great artwork. You love looking at it every time you wake up in the morning. One day, you wake up and see that the wall’s empty and the poster is lying on the floor. Even such a simple scenario subconsciously affects your mind by raising a flag which might say – ‘Expect something to go wrong today.’
Arrival is unlike any other Alien contact film that has ever been written for the screen. Adapted from a short story named “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the film revolves around the life of a Language Expert Louise, played by Amy Adams, who has lost her daughter to Cancer recently and is coping up with the tragedy by immersing herself in her work as a Professor of Linguistics. During one of her lectures, news reports start pouring in about some oblong objects which had mysteriously appeared at twelve locations all over the world. Unlike in clichéd scenes where we see a monstrous, malicious looking aircraft slide onto the screen towards the Earth shooting beams of red lasers, these aircrafts were unnervingly silent as they floated just a few meters above the ground barely making a sound or moving. The Army is quickly mobilized and stationed around one such object to try to understand the purpose of their visit. After several days of failed attempts and almost no progress in communicating with the visitors, the Army decides to bring in Louise and Ian, a Theoretical Physicist (played by Jeremy Renner), to try to make contact. Being one of the foremost authorities on the origin and dynamics of Language, Louise is able to garner responses from them in a short time. For every English word Louise writes on a slate to make them understand about Humans, she gets a cryptic-looking circular blotch which is duly captured by their cameras for analysis. This scientific focus on ‘Communication’ rather than ‘Defense’ or ‘Invasion’ becomes the centrepoint of their mission. In the backdrop of increasing disturbance throughout the world about the ‘End of times’ and ‘Judgement day’, the Team is able to make significant breakthrough using careful analysis of the symbols. In the moment of truth, the heads of states realise that communication among nations and not the mere show of military might was the way forward for Humanity to survive.
Terminology to know before you watch:
Zero Sum Game: In game theory and economic theory, a zero–sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants.
The complexity of this task was profoundly captured in one scene when the Army head orders Louise to cut the time-consuming analysis and ask them – “What is your purpose here?” to which Louise answers that – To explain this seemingly easy question to them, they would first have to explain to them the definition of a ‘question’, then would come the interpretation of the term ‘your’ which may mean a singular person but would also mean their whole species, consequently they would then have to explain the meaning of the word ‘purpose’ which again can be broken down to several sub-meanings….You get the point ! When communicating with someone whose verbology has no precedence with any known language on Earth, even the simplest words can become a monumental jargon of complexity.
There is another common factor in all of Villeneuve’s work which I would love to talk about. Like each of his past films, Arrival is spectacularly shot. The actual UFOs are not shown until our own protagonists reach ground zero. Villeneuve keeps us clamoring until the exact moment when the first 360 degree perspective is revealed and what a scene it is!
In any film where the Human race is on the brink of a possible invasion, the scene where the ‘first contact’ happens is, perhaps, the most important part. That is the moment which sets the tone and pace for the rest of the film. And suffice to say that Arrival has one the most endearing first-contact scenes ever to be matched only by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was also very close to the premise that Villeneuve works with here. From the sudden change in gravity as Louise and her team enter the craft to the white screen at the end of an eerily symmetrical tunnel, the silence of the whole situation overwhelms you. Amy brings a lot of authenticity to a person who is disturbed of being thrust into the middle of a most unpredictable situation but is also intrigued at the prospect of being able to communicate with beings from another world. Renner’s character is more of a rationalist who puts Science above all but soon realizes how communication was the key to everything.
Coupled with Bradford Young ‘s captivating cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson ‘s haunting score, Arrival gives you a taste of Stanley Kubrick’s style of cinema. A lot of attention has been given to symmetry in every shot and patterns in every perspective. Without divulging too much, the non-linear storyline is a beautiful compliment to the non-linear language that the characters try to interpret – something which is outside the boundaries of linear time. Through a classic screenplay, the audience’s mind is fit around a preconceived notion only to be broken at the end of the story and you are left with a gasping realization that the beginning was actually the end and the end was the beginning. Just like the name of Louise’s daughter ‘Hannah’ which is a Palindrome and those circular symbols (a circle doesn’t have a start or an end, again a palindrome). Many have compared this film to Interstellar but its an unfair comparison. Both these films carve a niche for themselves in the way science-fiction needs to be treated and we’re glad that Nolan has a worthy contender.
Villeneuve has arrived !
gobblscore: If you expect an action-packed Alien invasion film with CGI-heavy sequences, this one is not for you. However, if you appreciate a deeply profound story which makes you think and gives you that satisfying exhilaration in the end, this is a treat to watch.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this film and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.