Disturbing the Dust on a Bowl of Rose-Leaves

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

I’ve tried to make this film review spoiler free, so I’ve been a little circumspect about some of its incipits. I am of course familiar with the Ted Chiang story, but I’m not here considering what has been changed between the two versions.

The last three films I have seen at the cinema have been sf — Passengers was predictably pants and I’m still processing Rogue One. It is one of Gareth Edward’s earlier films, Monsters (2010) that is most relevant here though, in which the US-Mexican border has been “infected” by sublime, incomprehensible aliens and the US is at war. Arrival’s heptapod aliens owe a debt to Edwards’s, as well as, perhaps Spielberg’s “Martians” in his War of the Worlds (2005). Aliens have arrived at twelve seemingly random if strategic points all over the world (which recalled Simak’s Visitors for me, but it must appear elsewhere) in giant, apparently rugby-ball shaped, ships. The race is on to find out why they are here and, more to the point, how we can exploit them. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams), hero linguist, is called in to help decode the alien language, alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is there for less clear reasons.

The film opens with what appears to be a sidetrack — the birth, life and death of Louise’s daughter. This made me rather nervous — that precursor film Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) features a female protagonist with a dead father, and a tragic loss is an easy character motivation. There’s a certain amount of frustration to the camera angles — odd zones of focus and unfocus, characters offframe or not quite heard, so that we don’t quite get to see what’s going on. There are also a series of shots that for me recall Tarkovsky, although probably Nostalgia (1983) or The Sacrifice (1986) rather than Solaris (1972), although thematically that is in the mix too. In retrospect, it turns out, Villeneuve is playing fair with us but he has a helluva get out of jail free card. But I was a little distracted by the photo that Banks doesn’t have on her desk.

Of course, the bulk of the film is taken up with Banks and Donnelly’s attempt to communicate with the aliens, whom the latter names Abbott and Costello. This is odd, since neither of the heptopod duo engage in slapstick or banter, and it seems a very odd fashioned reference. Why not Laurel and Hardy? Ren and Stimpy? Cannon and Ball? Banks makes progress when she uses a whiteboard and when she recalls her daughter learning to read with picture books. We have a child’s garden of linguistics, as she explains her thinking to Weber (Forrest Whitaker), her military handler. The aliens, who haven’t seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), communicate in mandala-like ink blots, characters that seem to be entire sentences rather than symbolic representations of phonemes. Time clearly passes, and you might think they get their Rosetta Stone moment rather too quickly, as Banks begins to forge a relationship with Abbott.

By then there’s a ticking clock — even though we are focused on the American translations the film never forgets that aliens don’t just invade London or New York. The Chinese and the Russians seem the quickest to get to the point of being militaristic, and risks making the film look like old fashioned Cold War propaganda. Banks has to solve the puzzle before the nuke from orbit option is exercised. And it is elements in the US military that she has to fear as much as overseas forces. We teeter on the edge of action adventure when the film is much more interested in sublime tableaux.

The film, largely, trusts us. As the prologue alerts us, we should distrust beginnings, middles and ends, and there is no character who properly sits down and tells us the bigger story that is unfolding. To my taste, there are three missteps: an insert of a post-encounter documentary (which refers to Banks as Louise), the Doctor Who tell-not-show tactic of news bulletins to narrate the story and a line of dialogue that is absolutely predictable and vomit-inducing from the mouth of a major character. But we’re sneakily told what non zero sum games and the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is, even if I’m not convinced that being immersed in a society where people only speak a foreign-to-you language is the same as thought being constructed by language. But pay attention or you’ve missed the key to the film. (There’s an early exchange between Banks and Weber, where she asks him to ask a question of another expert. The answer, “a desire for more cows”, presumably meaningful, is lost in the noise.)

Adams, low key, understandably nervous, is utterly convincing throughout. Renner looks somewhat bemused, presumably aware that his job is to be eye candy. Whitaker balances a difficult mix of potential threat and kindly go between. Meanwhile, almost every thing you take to be an idiot move has got a pay off. I don’t think that Solaris is that bad a model to bear in mind, stylistically and thematically. Put Stalker (1979) in the mix, too. This is sf for grown ups rather than frustrated teens, handling its big central idea much better than Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). It almost demands that you watch it again on a loop.

Villeneuve is set to film the sequel to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). As directors of utterly pointless sequels go, the signs are good.

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