The notion of a film about communicating with aliens–though we’ve at least had Contact–intrigued me distinctly. The idea came through in the trailers for certain, and I considered watching it theatrically a number of times, but felt that, as large a movie as it was, the spark of the unusual wasn’t strong enough to pull me in. I kept it in the back of my mind–the folks involved with a lot of the background have appeared here and there. Denis Villeneuve has appeared behind the helm of Blade Runner 2049; Eric Heisserer is writing for Valiant. The creeping up of the film from connected corners pushed me to shrug and give it a go, finally.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor sleepwalking through life, not until, but even when a series of unidentified objects appear in the sky across the world. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) has identified her as the ideal candidate for attempting to communicate with the occupants of these objects, and takes her with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt to understand their objective on Earth. These are not aliens who speak any terrestrial language, and so Louise is left to slowly introduce them to us, and encourage them to reciprocate.
The essence of the concept that intrigued me remained omnipresent: the question that’s rarely addressed in fiction, but that remains all the same. How does one communicate with aliens, really? We have concepts about what language looks and sounds like–even in the vast range we have on Earth, it is nothing like the totality of the possibility of communicative methodologies. As a linguist, Louise understands this–she has to explain it repeatedly to the men around her, who operate from military, service-oriented backgrounds (Weber), scientific experimentation, formulation, and mathematics (Donnelly), or paranoid interpersonal politics and subterfuge (Agent Halpern, played by Michael Stuhlbarg). They generally respect her expertise, but are still drawn and motivated by the perspectives they’ve trained their own lives in, which are not, as it happens, the perspectives that function best with these entities.
There are more dimensions to this story than the alien aspect–Banks has lost a child, and is struggling with this and the images that continue to trouble her as she works herself endlessly over attempting to understand what linguistic elements the aliens provide to her. This is entwined in a fashion that doesn’t resemble the expected, with no clumsy manipulation, no direct, analogous correlations. The characters surrounding the core cast and the rest of the core cast, too, avoid obvious, archetypal, or overly predictable manoeuvres, except where they are inevitable. The need to follow orders, the endless suspicion of motives, the systemic way of seeing things–these fit the characters, but don’t define them, and are given enough room within the character to let broader personalities exist. We don’t get something like everyone’s “funny” or “human” moment that “redeems” them or something, we just see that those are the strongest motivators and ways of thinking for them–not definitions, just attitudes.
The clearest thing about Arrival, though, is the work of the teams supporting Villeneuve’s direction: Bradford Young, the cinematographer, and the sound team, led by Sylvain Bellemare as supervising sound designer. Young pours darkness and shadow across most scenes of humanity with little regard for making things anything more than necessarily visible, enhancing the contrast of the scenes with the aliens themselves and their baths of light, and the contrast between that stark brightness with the world of humanity. The camera, too, operates in an impressively visual way, being very apparent but never intrusive–it will follow characters, or act as characters so smoothly that it does more than its normal job of immersing us in this world, and reminding us that this story is primarily about Louise. Bellemare and company, however, are utterly exceptional: sound is rarely used as robustly and delicately as it is here. Every noise that is important to a moment is enhanced–not enhanced by simply lifting the volume, but by isolating it where appropriate–such as in a memory–or letting its naturally excessive volume–like the helicopter that picks Louise up–control the scene at the cost of other sounds, like the functional dialogue that hides below it when Louise is picked up. The sound of the aliens, the musical choices, being largely ambient and textural over melodic or dramatic, are exceptional and serve the film perfectly. This kind of design is a rarity, and couched as it is in a film that works in a few nods (or at least similarities to) Malickian imagery makes it all a mood or tone piece that doesn’t lose sight of plot in the process.
This was an exceptional movie, though I don’t think that’s really news to everyone else.