Film Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s formidable science fiction variation on Amor Fati

Arrival. Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Paramount Pictures. 2016

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

In Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s new science fiction film, twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft suddenly appear at various points across the globe. The world quickly descends into disorder. Markets tumble, riots and looting ensue, and suddenly all the crazy crystal-speaking aunts don’t seem so looney after all. Amid all this madness national governments scramble to understand what is happening. The United States hires noted linguist Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, to attempt communication with one of the spacecraft that has landed in Montana. Their objective is to learn who these alien beings are and what their purpose on earth is. The story that is told is one of the better films to be released this year, not only because it is an entertaining movie of high quality filmmaking but also because of the intellectually stimulating treatment of its minor and major themes.

Arrival clocks in at just under two hours and with total worldwide box office receipts in excess of $105 million it’s clear that its slightly longer than average runtime is no detriment to getting people into the seats. With good reason, too; the film is a cinematic powerhouse showcasing an engrossing story, moody audiovisuals, and powerful acting.

This is a film more 2001: A Space Odyssey than, say, Independence Day. And even though the aliens of Arrival, dubbed Heptapods, aren’t violent and aggressive like those found in more traditional alien invasion movies, their presence in the film provides a sustained sense of dread and menace. This menace is subtle but terrifying. Villeneuve’s presentation of the Heptapod’s arrival captures this subtle terror perfectly. He doesn’t offer us a special effects laden spectacle of spaceships penetrating the globe and laying waste to international landmarks. Instead we’re treated to a simple tracking shot of Dr. Louise Banks walking through her campus towards class. In the background students and faculty huddle around television screens amid nervous chatter. Then, when Louise gets to class, only a few students are in attendance. Suddenly, in a scene familiar to anyone who has lived through a national tragedy such as 9/11, the student’s phones begin ringing and one of them asks to turn on the news.

The Heptapod arrival naturally instigates a worldwide military mobilization and here the tension really ratchets up. Mankind is not only presented with an alien invasion but also with the added complication of a largely uncoordinated international response wherein one wrong move could trigger intergalactic war. This is the major tension driving the film forward. The question is: will Louise and Ian decipher the Heptapod’s language, determine their purpose, and relay it to the world before hostilities break out? Throughout it all remain the Heptapods themselves: slow-moving, deep-throated, monster-like beings floating amidst a mysterious milky substance. They’re scary enough themselves.

Their spookiness is amplified by the muted, gloomy color design and melancholy score of the film. This is an elegant and potent marriage of sound and image. The images, poetic and natural, are captured artfully by cinematographer Bradford Young whose style capitalizes on a restrained yet kinetic camera movement at just the right places. The soundtrack, featuring music by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and released by Duetsche Grammophon, is a perfect complement to the film’s soft, saturnine imagery. This combination of Young’s images with Jóhannson’s music provides support for a fruitful presentation of story and character.

And the Oscar goes to?

The character sure to be discussed come awards season is Dr. Louise Banks, played powerfully by Amy Adams. Adams is sure to earn at least a best actress nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. She’s already won the National Board of Review’s best actress award. The Oscar nomination will be well deserved which is quite the achievement given the genre of the performance. The opportunity to witness a performance so passionate, strong, and full of pathos in a science fiction film is rare indeed. It is important that Adams gets it right too because her character is the center of the film and her story is what elevates Arrival from a merely passable movie to a potentially great one.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Dr. Louise Banks is the primary agent of this film, playing a principal role in developing all of the film’s themes. One of these themes, perhaps the most obvious, is the difficulty of cross-cultural communication. Louise, for instance, speaks many earthling languages, of the dead and living variety, but she doesn’t initially understand the Heptapod’s strange, ink-blotted, circular Rorschachesque calligraphy. One of the central plot devices in the film is her race to understand the Heptapods before the earthling governments move against them. Then there’s the great short scene where the Americans are gathered around a set of screens that have previously served as the telecommunications hub for contact with other governments working with the aliens. Only now, approaching the tense climax of the film, instead of hosting live representatives of these countries each screen is populated only with the word “DISCONNECTED” written in deep, foreboding red letters. Really, is there a better visual metaphor for the realist, anarchic theory of international relations?

The major theme of Arrival, however, is the burden of time and the potential responses to the ever-present reality of human suffering. This drama plays out between Louise and the Heptapods. The Heptapods, unlike so many cinematic alien invaders, are not here to destroy the earth. They’re here because they themselves need help. Their goal is not earthling annihilation, but earthling enhancement. They seek to share with humanity a technology that will, in turn, empower humanity in three thousand years time to help the Heptapods with some unarticulated existential threat. The technology they share with Louise is their language. Their language enables Louise to experience time as the Heptapod’s do.

The Heptapods do not perceive time linearly like mankind. They perceive time in all its totality. That is, they make no distinction between time past, time present, and time future. They are simultaneously aware of all time. In this respect, they’re very similar to Vonnegut’s alien race the Tralfamadorians. In fact, the Heptapod resemblance to the Tralfamadorians doesn’t end there. These two races are really just physical inversions of each other. The Tralfamadorians are small, about two feet high, with a body like a plunger topped off by a hand with an eye in the palm area. The Heptapods, conversely, are very large creatures, with long, fingerlike legs.

Despite these similarities there are stark differences between the Tralfamadorians and the Heptapods. Where the Tralfamadorians are comical and sweet the Heptapods, and Arrival more generally, are solemn and glum. There is a utopian strain in some science fiction that holds that technological and scientific advancement emboldens humanity and lifts their horizons. Arrival takes a more pessimistic view. The technology the Heptapods share is not uplifting and empowering. Quite the contrary: it is burdening. Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in The World as Will and Representation, comments on the distinction between animal and human consciousness and how mankind’s experience of time is oppressive. “The absence of reason,” he wrote, “restricts the animals to representations of perception immediately present to them in time, in other words to real objects. We, on the other hand, by virtue of knowledge in the abstract, comprehend not only the narrow and actual present, but also the whole past and future together with the wide realm of possibility.” The Heptapod technology — their language — takes this abstract notion of the total comprehension of time and makes it concrete.

Louise’s experience shows that the adoption of the Heptapod language, and the concomitant total perception of time, is a heavy burden. She is exposed not only to all the sadness of her past but also to the coming misery of her future. The film makes an explicit point of this, focusing throughout on the pain she experiences over the loss of her daughter to childhood cancer. In addition, she’s made painfully aware of her future divorce. Nearly all Louise’s memories — both past and future — seem to confirm Schopenhauer’s other observation that misfortune and suffering is the general rule of life.

So what is one to do when, as Louise is, one is confronted with this terrible fact of existence?

One response is to decline Camus’ cup of coffee. That is to say the individual must ask, to quote the poet, is life worth living or should I blast myself? Blasting yourself seems a bit extreme, especially when there are still tacos to be had. A more palatable option might be the option Schopenhauer counseled: a retreat into permanent aesthetic contemplation. On the other end of the spectrum, Giacomo Leopardi, that exquisite Italian pessimist, argued that not only should we accept the suffering of life, we should embrace it. “Live,” Leopardi wrote, “and be great and unhappy.” This is exactly the course Louise takes. She understands that if she marries Dr. Ian the marriage will eventually end in divorce. She understands that their coupling will yield a daughter who will be cruelly taken from them by cancer. She willfully accepts these sufferings.

She says yes to life.

Louise’s decision is Nietzsche’s Dionysian pessimism writ large on the big screen: the desire to become a Yes-sayer even — especially — in the face of great suffering. This is the idea that when we’re presented with an eternal recurrence of human suffering we must welcome it. We must accept the pain of loss and the perishability of life. We must abandon the concept that happiness is the ultimate goal and move forward creating meaning for ourselves out of the miserable nothingness of existence. For Nietzsche, to willfully embrace the eternal recurrence (a variation of which is Louise’s new understanding of time) is “Dionysian wisdom. Joy in the destruction of the most noble and at the sight of its progressive ruin: in reality joy in what is coming and lies in the future, which triumphs over existing things, however good.”

In a rather perfect, if not intentional, metaphor for Louise’s embrace of Nietzsche’s Dionysian pessimism, the scene in which she accepts it shows her drinking wine and dancing with her husband.

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

There is an important recurring visual motif in Arrival. It’s a low-angle tracking shot moving along under an obstructing ceiling that eventually pans down to reveal a wide vista. This shot opens the film. There are at least three other identical shots throughout the picture. The shot perfectly represents Arrival’s themes of a rejection of technological utopianism and embrace of a pessimistic worldview. The optimist, like the low-angle tracking shot, looks upward, aspires to great things, and feels empowered by technology and progress. But there are limits, a ceiling, to human knowledge. It’s only after taming expectations, adopting the pessimistic view of life, accepting the world for what it is, and looking at things in a straightforward manner that the world opens up and we see things clearly.

Arrival’s entertaining presentation of these ideas make it the film of the year for joyful pessimists everywhere!

Rating: 8.5/10.

Like what you read? Give Brian E. Denton a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.