We Are Not Alone
These are interesting times for science fiction. You can be excused for thinking that science fiction is just shorthand for an action movie set in space, or with aliens, or time travel. Yeah, we’ve had a lot of that, particularly with Star Trek Beyond and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.* But we’re also living in a bit of a miniature renaissance of sci-fi movies that intertwine hard science with the human emotional journey. Films like Ex Machina, Interstellar, The Martian, and Gravity all have a beating heart and something to say, even if their message is cloaked in androids or impenetrable talk of approach vectors.
But isn’t that one of the great things about genre films, that you can use their trappings to tell a good yarn and make an intelligent point? The Babadook is about a creature from a storybook terrorizing a mother and son, as well as the sometimes shameful ambivalence of parenthood. The Martian is about a guy stuck on an alien world, as well as the choice to reject despair and choose life. Arrival continues in that same admirable tradition, and it’s quite possibly the best film of the year.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist, spending her days teaching her students about the finer points of language. She also has images in her mind and heart of a too-brief life, of an infant looking at the world with wonder. Banks’ thoughts are returned to the present day as twelve alien crafts arrive on our planet and mysteriously hover above twelve seemingly random locations. Why are they here? What do they want? Should we blast the hell out of them? Her expertise will come in handy since Banks is conscripted by the military to attempt communications. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, always welcome) is her military liaison. He’s also brought along astrophysicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to assist her, and they travel to Montana to make contact with one of the extraterrestrials.
For lack of a better phrase, the visitors are called Heptapods. They are a curious blend of starfish and giant squid, they vocalize somewhat like whales, and they are able to “write” in circular sentences using gaseous ink clouds. Banks has a big brain in her head, and before long she’s worked out the fundamentals of their language. But CIA officer Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) thinks we need to hit them before they hit us, and Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) thinks along similar lines. Banks and Donnelly must learn the heptapods intentions before shots are fired.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Arrival is thrilling, but in an emotional and cerebral way. You will not see massive explosions, Renner brandishing a laser rifle, or Adams hanging onto the outside of a spacecraft suspended hundreds of feet above the ground. From the surface, the focus is a narrow one, and the film is a realistic examination of how we poor humans might try to communicate when First Contact happens.
We’re lucky that this film was created by such a talented and thoughtful group of filmmakers. Director Denis Villeneuve, with a relatively modest $50 million budget, has made a very deliberate and intelligent film. It’s restrained, though not repressed. When we first learn about the alien arrival, we don’t see their spacecraft on televisions. Instead, we see the looks of shock, wonder, and fear from people watching TV. When Villeneuve does reveal the craft and, a little later, the aliens themselves, he does it from a place of curiosity mixed with understandable apprehension. It helps that he’s working with the talented cinematographer Bradford Young, who enhances the mood with shots of great precision, and composer Johann Johannsson, who has created a score that enhances huge mysterious moments, as well as personal and emotional beats.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer based his script on Ted Chiang’s story, “Story of Your Life.” He’s done impressive work in portraying, what I assume, is a realistic imagining of what communication with aliens would really be like. Equally impressive is how, along with the big story elements surrounding the intentions of the heptapods, he allows us a glimpse into the mind and heart of Banks. After all, the film really is all about how language shapes our outlook upon and relationship with the world. An astonishing secret is hidden in plain sight. Heisserer’s script, along with Villeneuve’s confident direction, uses the language of film to gradually increase the drama. When the reveal happens, it never feels like a cheat, but it feels natural and earned.
The supporting cast does good work, which is entirely unsurprising. I have to admit that, initially, I had some problems with the idea of Jeremy Renner playing a scientist. He’s an actor I associate with playing regular guys, like his bomb disposal expert in The Hurt Locker, or as the Avenger Hawkeye. If casting were up to me, I would have nabbed Chiwetel Ejiofor instead, an actor who exudes intelligence. Turns out I’m kinda dumb and owe him an apology since Renner convincingly sells the intelligence and curiosity of Donnelly. As Colonel Weber, the mighty Forest Whitaker can play a hard-nosed Army officer in his sleep. But he’s not sleepwalking here, and experience has taught Weber that he’s right to be cautious and somewhat skeptical.
The success of Arrival ultimately relies on the performance of Amy Adams. If she chose to retire from acting right now, she could be secure in the knowledge that her portrayal of Banks is career best work. As Banks, she’s a total professional, and someone who would naturally keep emotional turmoil tucked away. But remember how I said I had some problems with Renner as an academic? Right out of the gate, Adams is completely believable as a linguistics expert. We believe that she knows what she’s doing, and we believe in her passion for her field. There’s a lot going on with her mentally and emotionally. A lesser actor would have chosen big moments, but her subtle emotional undercurrents are more natural and prevent the film from becoming too distant. Adams also grew up in Castle Rock, Colorado. I’m not saying the fact that she’s a Colorado native has anything to do with her incredible acting, but…well, you can draw your own conclusions.
We’ve just gone through one of the sleaziest and nastiest elections of modern times. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. But the accomplished and impressive filmmaking evident in Arrival was cathartic for me. It tells us a story of uncertainty, a step into the unknown. It also tells us that, on those really awful days when we can’t seem to get through to each other, the potential is there to connect. If we’re wise enough.
*I know, despite having spacecraft and blasters, the Star Wars movies definitely skew closer to fantasy. Nothing wrong with that at all, but there’s not much intersection between hard science and the Jedi.