One of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes features Calvin staring bemusedly at the ground and telling Hobbes, “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” I’ve been reminded of this quote time and again this year. It would seem from the news that Planet Earth has entered a death spiral. ISIS, North Korea, Brexit, Kashmir, Trump…we’ve got enough material to have Billy Joel record an exclusively 2016 version of We Didn’t Start the Fire. Even if your worldview isn’t quite as morbid that, surely the now daily Facebook wrangles between your friends suggest that civility and tolerance are fast draining from the sphere of human interaction. We need to take a long look at ourselves, and the remarkable Arrival is a timely mirror.
The supreme Amy Adams stars as expert linguist Louise Banks, whose life is changed when she receives an out-of-this-world consulting engagement. Literally – twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared overnight in twelve seemingly random locations around the globe. The alien craft remain hovering above the ground for days on end, and their inhabitants seem content to stay inside. As the world scrambles in panic to understand what is happening, the governments of the contacted countries begin independent efforts to engage with the visitors. The US army ropes in Banks to try and crack the aliens’ language. Priority No. 1 is to find out what they want. Confirm the safety of the human race, then we can move on to matters of scientific curiosity. Banks, however, wants to form a connection before interrogating the ETs or asking for favours . “Why don’t we talk to them before we start throwing math problems at them?” she says to theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, likeable as usual).
The necessary evils of marketing may have led you to believe this was an alien invasion movie, but what follows is a mind-bending examination of humanity, love, language and time. The main storyline features Banks working against the clock to decode the aliens’ communication system, but this is intercut with long, lilting, melancholy scenes that slowly unfurl a tragedy in Banks’ life. This is how Interstellar might have turned out in the hands of Terrence Malick.
Malick did not direct Arrival though, we have Denis Villeneuve to thank for that. In the last three years, the Canadian has made Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2015). Now this. Such assembly-line pace is impressive by itself. Consider the variety and quality of these films, and it is simply staggering. His next movie, a tiny project called Blade Runner 2049, could well launch him into the rare realm of directorial superstardom.
This is an oddly gentle film, given the subject. There are no crumbling monuments, crashing buildings or pitched aerial battles. (These aren’t spoilers – a film like this can’t be spoiled) There are some brave choices. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young intentionally used poor lighting, so that it would feel like “this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning, like when you were a kid on the school bus on a rainy day and you’d dream while looking out the window at the clouds.” And oh yes, they also invented a fully-functional language for the film. Movies like Arrival are rare. When superheroes and pirates are guaranteed to rake in billions, why take chances? Complex, thoughtful films like these require risky assumptions about the patience and intelligence of the audience, but every once in a while a major studio will make that bet. It’s up to us to go into the theaters and prove them right.