Science fiction has long enabled artists in many mediums to explore impenetrable emotions (fear, desire, control) through fantasy and allegory. Some filmmakers approach the genre from a more realistic angle. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is willfully rooted in the present day, where anxiety and panic can spread like an airborne virus. The film confronts these tendencies by brandishing meditative qualities, which end up countering the psychological disruptions (both personal and collective) caused by a shocking global event.
When 12 half-dome-shaped spacecrafts suddenly appear at locations around the world, modern civilization reacts with 24-hour news coverage, riots and increased militarization. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) watches the monumental occasion unfold on television, until she gets a visit from high-ranking Army Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) who's in need of her translation services. The aliens want to talk, and the American government wants answers.
Upon arriving at the massive Montana landing sight, Louise is partnered up with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Almost immediately, the two academics are whisked into the hull of the alien vessel and begin communications with two massive "Heptapods" (nicknamed Abbot and Costello) that appear every 18 hours behind a glass barrier and thick clouds of steam-like vapor.
During their first gravity-busting ascent into the vessel, Louise and Ian are forced to take a physical leap of faith that defies logic. Yet once inside the massive ship both characters lean heavily on basic foundations of their specialties in order to better communicate with the extraterrestrials. Tone and intent play an important role in these discussions, leaving even more room for interpretation. Such ambiguity ultimately makes many young Army officers and a forceful CIA liaison (Michael Stuhlbarg) nervous.
As he did in Sicario and Enemy, Villeneuve visualizes every conversation like a tense negotiation that could break down at any time. Whatever trust has been solidified between partners is always subject to doubt. This plays out at the human level with Louise and Ian, but also when the disparate nation-states dealing with an alien presence decide to stop sharing information out of fear. Lack of transparency breeds peril.
Stylistically, Arrival is a marvel of sublime imagery and overpowering sound design. Louise watches an epic wave of fog roll through a valley as she witnesses the craft for the first time. Booming tones on the soundtrack give more intimate sequences a heightened feeling of pressure. Villeneuve wants to illuminate the process of immersion, and how learning something new can begin to change the way you think, dream and ultimately act.
The film is overtly optimistic about humanity's future and possible co-dependency with alien life forms. Considering Villeneuve's usually bleak worldview this deviation remains surprising. But the tonal shift makes sense considering Louise's flexibility to understanding time and space from a new vantage point, and her willingness to address questions of mortality and predetermination. Do we embrace life, or fear the inevitability that it will end?
While Arrival's ending answers this question with swooning sentimentality, one could argue that its rosy perspective has only become possible thanks to the Heptapods' ability to be introspective and forward thinking. It doesnít suggest humans lack these qualities, only that we sometimes choose to insulate ourselves out of laziness and habit. Louise and Ian become symbols for a different kind of thinking that thrives on clarity and faith, but not without some cost to their own future happiness.
Arrival, which opens Friday, Nov. 11, will be one of the first films widely released after what could be a historically contentious Election Day. By that time the film's anti-isolationist and pro-unity themes will undoubtedly feel timely for many reasons. It could represent a fictitious and naïve future that will never be, or an optimistic portrait of what humans can achieve when they come together. What a strange time to be alive.