I’ve seen plenty of alien invasion movies in my time, with the vast majority depicting a visit from intergalactic travellers as the trigger for mass hysteria across the globe. Arrival is the most realistic alien invasion movie I have ever seen, because the announcement of spaceships landing on planet earth is greeted with a quiet paranoia. Director Denis Villeneuve portrays this in a delicate way; he isn’t prone to overstatement, instead slowly depicting a globalised fear of the unknown in the quietest, simplest (yet most stunning) visual terms possible.
It starts with the buzz of mobile phones in a college lecture hall, with the humdrum boredom of daily life getting swiftly replaced by an alarming news society can’t quite comprehend, let alone react to. People stop looking where they are driving to stare at the skies, news channels deploy a subtle anti-invader rhetoric that is slowly amped up to the point where online right-wing commentators stress the need to employ force – no matter whether or not they are peaceful travellers. These are all minor, background details that have little impact on the narrative itself, but all help ground Arrival in a more realistic background than any other science fiction film I’ve seen this decade. In fact, the only snippet of news presenter chitchat that occurs on a background TV that doesn’t ring true is the announcement that the US have suspended all gun sales, something we blatantly know will never happen.
As our windows into this paranoid world, we have Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner portraying a linguistic scholar and a theoretical physicist respectively. They are employed by the US army to go up into one of the twelve spaceships that have landed across the globe, to try and make contact with the aliens, finding out exactly why they are here in the process. This isn’t as simple a process as it might seem; the intricacies of language, especially when so much can get lost in translation, mean that asking a simple question requires lots of sessions trying to ascertain what they do and don’t understand.
Outside of the US, each of the other countries where a spacecraft has landed have employed a semantic expert, and the differences in the ways each country uses language leads to heightened, Cold War style tensions where global co-operation is indefinitely halted and militaries refuse to give up the secrets they have been given. Subtly, Arrival argues that it is the differences in the way we use language that lead to prolonged tensions – translating a foreign word for “tool” into English could make it become “weapon” in the process, for example.
The aliens (“heptapods”) in Arrival don’t speak, instead using a universal visual language to talk. At first, each of their messages looks like an image of a tomato at a slightly different angle. Yet it is through this simple imagery that we soon find they can convey more complex thought than we can using the restrictions of conversation. Villeneuve masterfully balances this thoughtful look at language and global tensions with a thrilling story about alien invasion that leads to a third act that many will argue loses its credulity – despite boasting an originality seldom seen in a sci-fi landscape currently preoccupied with homaging classics of the genre. To say anymore would be a spoiler, although I already assume that every hack critic out there will compare this to Interstellar, when a far more fitting Christopher Nolan comparison would be the untrustworthy dreamscapes presented in Inception.
Although he has been a distinctive director for quite some time now, Arrival marks Denis Villenueve’s ascent into the auteur big leagues, as the two films his latest compares most strongly to are actually his two preceding efforts. His prior film, Sicario, has narrative similarities due to depictions of strong women becoming embedded in a military plan they aren’t given the authority to understand, their clear understanding and ability to rationalise controversial situations looked upon with disdain by their superiors. The aesthetics also recall Sicario too, as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score manages to surpass his work for that prior effort in terms of producing bone crunching tension. Arrival isn’t a scary film, despite the feeling of paranoia Villeneuve successfully evokes – but thanks to his aesthetic choices, such as the use of music, my palms were sweaty for a large portion of the first act.
The most important comparison, however, is that of his 2013 effort Enemy, due to the unreliability of the images we are being presented. Villeneuve may be the best director working today when it comes to foreshadowing events; he does it in a manner so oblique, none of the left field narrative developments feel predictable, yet are still firmly grounded in narrative logic from the very opening scene.
It may be overly simplistic, but Villeneuve’s approach is akin to a more popcorn-friendly David Lynch, due to his love of surrealism and unexpected scares; both Enemy and Arrival have unforgettable jump scares that are unnerving precisely because he doesn’t build up to them in a conventional manner. Villenueve’s clear admiration of Lynch extends to the way he constructs narrative too – the traditional three act structure is completely abolished in a subtly revolutionary way by the time we reach the third act, creating something of a cinematic mobius strip akin to Mulholland Drive.
Comparisons with recent sci-fi blockbusters including Interstellar and The Martian are utterly laughable; this is a dense movie that requires multiple viewings to fully grasp. Heck, it even acts as a realist counterpoint to the feel good cheer of The Martian, depicting a universe where the lack of trust between governments hinders them working together when humanity needs it the most. It also makes the Will Self criticism of Christopher Nolan’s movies as “smart films for dumb people” feel more accurate than ever; on first viewing at least, this is the biggest sci-fi head scratcher since Primer.
Arrival is Villeneuve’s first big budget blockbuster, yet it feels like one of the most arthouse science fiction films to arrive in the mainstream since 2001: A Space Odyssey 49 years ago. If Star Wars had never existed, you can bet your bottom dollar all sci-fi movies would be this intelligent. Sadly, in this reality, Arrival exists in a league of its own – a masterpiece of the genre that will continue to endure for years to come.