Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” (2016)

Notable Festivals: Venice

Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing

Alien invasions are a routine occurrence in the realm of cinema, as mundane an event as anything else on the day’s news cycle. Most compel us to look upwards in wonder, like Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), or in horror, like WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Very few, however, compel us to look inward— to reflect and marvel on the cosmic nature of our own composition. If we’re made of starstuff, as Carl Sagan famously once said, we should celebrate that. We shouldn’t recoil at the unfathomable infinity of the larger universe and the other intelligences that may (and by all mathematical reasoning, should) inhabit it. Director Denis Villeneuve’s feature, ARRIVAL (2016), shares this sentiment— a somber celebration of our humanity as it stands on the precipice of profound change and becomes part of a larger cosmic tapestry of life. 

Rivaled perhaps only by David Fincher in terms of the nihilistic quality he brings to his work, Villeneuve crafts ARRIVAL as a surprisingly hopeful and humanistic film. His vision of mankind’s  first contact with an alien race is darkly beautiful and emotionally elegant, calibrated towards realism and scientific integrity. The film is based on a short story by Ted Chiang titled “Story Of Your Life”, published in 1998 and subsequently adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer. After pitching his project around Hollywood to no interest for many years (4), Heisserer finally found a creative partner in director Shawn Levy’s production company 21 Laps (5). Levy and fellow producers Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, and David Linde brought the project to Villeneuve’s attention during the production of PRISONERS (6), steadily working to ready it for cameras while he was shooting other projects like SICARIO (2015). By the time production commenced in Montreal, the producers found themselves with one of the hottest filmmakers in the world calling the shots— an artist working at the peak of his powers to steer their ambitious sci-fi project into uncharted territory: the awards circuit.

ARRIVAL begins not with a bang, but with a beep— the telltale chirp of a smartphone push notification alerting us to the latest developments in a never-ending cycle of breaking news. It has become a routine part of everyday life, only this is a day unlike any other in history… the day that everything will change. A dozen or so egg-shaped orbs of unknown extraterrestrial origin have inexplicably materialized over seemingly-random locations throughout the globe, hovering silently about thirty feet above the surface. While civilians take refuge in their homes and television screens, the governments of the world begin coordinating the intimidating — perhaps even impossible — task of establishing contact. The question is clear — “what is your purpose on earth?”— but the manner in which to actually communicate this query is a total mystery. 

Enter Louise Banks, a linguistics expert and college professor who once worked as a Farsi translator for the military. As played by six-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, Louise is top of her field, possessed of a supernatural gift for language and its varied styles and constructions across cultures. She is also haunted, we’re led to believe, by the tragic loss of a child— an explanation perhaps for her withdrawn, melancholic demeanor. Shortly after the egg-shaped alien crafts materialize, she’s pulled away from the world of academia by the humorless, authoritative Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and brought to a hastily-erected site in Montana to assist his team in establishing contact with the heptapods: their term for the seven-legged extraterrestrials found inside the pods, which resemble an octopus and elephant mashed together. Her partner in this mission is Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, a mild-mannered theoretical physicist who is uniquely suited to helping her make sense of the heptapod’s cryptic, nonlinear manner of communication. While the larger question of their intentions for Earth invites a suffocating layer of dread over the operation, Banks faces more immediate (and unexpected) challenges from the human side of the equation; when she isn’t being bossed around by Col. Weber, she’s fielding the impatience of MIchael Stuhlbarg’s Agent Halpern, the stuffed shirt running the communications center, or the aggressions of China’s General Shang, played by Tzi Ma as a reactive hardliner who is ultimately humbled by Banks’ efforts. Indeed, ARRIVAL’s plot isn’t so much concerned with humanity’s dialogue with an alien race as it is with communication between members of our own kind; with our unique duality that tempers our intelligence and ambition with an inherent self-destructiveness. 

A larger question looms over the proceedings; one that gives ARRIVAL its emotional center and allows it to transcend the plot’s genre trappings. In a way, it’s a question posed by the heptapods to Louise, slowly materializing as she learns the nonlinear structure of their language and begins to perceive the world around her — and time — differently. We’re led to believe that Louise’s flashbacks to her lost child are just that: flashbacks. Without giving too much away, the film eventually reveals this to be an intentional misdirection. Just like Louise, we are assuming that the continuum of time is linear. When the film pauses for these moments of melancholy reverie, we interpret Louise’s withdrawn expression as grief because we’ve been conditioned by the conventional storytelling purpose of the flashback device (as well as our own linear presumption of time). In actuality, her expression is one of mystery and wonder — she doesn’t know who this child is. She doesn’t realize this child is yet to be born. Her ultimate realization as to the true nature of these “memories” puts her on the path to achieving her emotional needs with a compelling prompt: is love always worth pursuing, even if you knew it would end in heartbreak? That the film’s answer is a resounding “yes” is the key to understanding the beauty and luminance of our inherent humanity— even in the context of its revelation that our technological advances pale in comparison to those of the other intelligences that populate the stars.

ARRIVAL is committed to a realistic depiction of how the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence might play out on a global scale. Indeed, judging by the way various countries handled the coronavirus outbreak, the only unrealistic aspect is the speed and relative ease in which the governments of the world begin working together to establish contact. The way in which Villeneuve stages the breaking news of their emergence is stomach-churning in its parallels to the first reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11. He emphasizes the mundane to begin with, foregoing the spectacle-favored eyewitness perspective for that of a teacher so wrapped up in the day’s work that she doesn’t notice all the people glued to a TV in the background. Her classroom is much emptier than usual — the first sign that something is amiss — but she plods on with the lesson until cell phones begin to chirp with push notifications, each high-pitched “ping” adding to the growing atmosphere of dread. The global fallout of the heptapods’ arrival also presents a compelling conundrum for the film to explore, arguing how the exceptionality of humanity — our passions & our ambitions — can weaponize itself against us in times of extreme strife. Our individual interests are mistaken for our collective ones, subsequently causing us to rapidly divide into smaller, squabbling camps that make for easier targets for conquest by an outside intelligence.

ARRIVAL’s harrowing realism stems from an impeccable technical pedigree; a result of both Villeneuve’s artistic tastes as well as the intimidating skill sets of his collaborators. He enlists the services of Bradford Young, a particularly bright rising star in the cinematography trade sought after by A-list filmmakers for his unique ability to coax fine detail out of the lowest toes of exposure. Digital Arri Alexa XST cameras were used to capture the film at 2K resolution in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the format’s proclivity toward cold, hard edges dampened by the use of a special set of Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses with recoated glass that reduces contrast (3). Drawing inspiration from the stark monochromatic photography of Scandinavian artist Martin Hoagland (1), Young fulfills Villeneuve’s desire for an image rooted in a natural, evocative realism. The film’s cinematography walks something of a tightrope in its embrace of a dim, drab aesthetic without feeling too gloomy or too dark. The lower contrast harmonizes with a shallow depth of field and a cold, desaturated color palette to establish a dreamlike aura. When they’re not balancing the pop of orange hazmat suits against gray daylight, Villeneuve & Young lean into the harsh blue of the Montana facility’s utility lights or the warm ambers of incandescents. The film further reinforces a sense of dreamlike memory by employing handheld camerawork to render Louise’s visions of her daughter, while Villeneuve’s formalistic inclinations — creeping dollies, foreboding aerials, and deliberate tracking movements — tether the bulk of the story to Earth. 

Frequent production designer Patrice Vermette helps Villeneuve to transform the shooting site in Saint-Fabian, Quebec into the spacious vistas of Montana (1), while constructing a highly original and imaginative depiction of an intelligent alien race. Nearly every aspect of the heptapods and their technology defies the well-trod iconography of aliens in pop culture; there’s no invisible tractor beam, no spinning saucers with a blinking array of blinding lights, and definitely no little green men. Louise and her team have to enter the tall, egg-shaped craft via the humble scissor lift, only to find a small stone chamber where they can dialogue with the heptapods behind a kind of invisible barrier. Vermette’s wife, the Montreal-based artist Martin Bertrand, was brought in to design the circular, inky nature of the heptapod’s “written” language, the versatility of which enabled Villeneuve and Heisserer to subsequently develop over one hundred distinct words and phrases— a fully-realized alien language that conveys meaning through imagery rather than script. Returning editor Joe Walker draws a straight line from these logograms to the medium of cinema, which works in the same way. The film’s nonlinear succession of imagery and the obfuscation of chronology work to give the audience an emotional (if not technical) understanding of the story; none of us can relate to making contact with aliens, but we can relate to a mother’s love for her child as an experience that’s equally awe-inspiring and transcendent. Walker infuses the connective tissue of ARRIVAL’s story with a natural, unforced poignancy, evidenced most immediately in scenes with Louise’s daughter— snippets of happy and painful memories coated with a veneer of melancholy via their pairing with the contemporary classical maestro Max Richter’s gorgeous string composition, “On The Nature of Daylight”.

Indeed, the cue is used throughout ARRIVAL to striking effect, illustrating the multitude of emotions that a single piece can convey by bookending the film, evoking feelings of heartache and grief at the opening while closing with the sensation of a delicate hope— not that the ultimate outcome of Louise’s motherhood might change, but that the journey ahead will make the whole thing worthwhile. While its inclusion reinforces the trembling emotional tenor of the story, it would also impose a rather unwelcome side effect to the overall success of Villeneuve and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final collaboration. While the film’s score was highly regarded as some of the best work of his career, the heavy prominence of Richter’s pre-existing track would cause the Academy to bar Jóhannsson from Oscar consideration. Because Richter’s track was also cinematic and orchestral in nature, they reasoned, they didn’t want voters to confuse that as Jóhannsson’s work either. In two short years, Jóhannsson would unexpectedly pass away; that the eligibility criteria would disqualify a major work from one of the medium’s most innovative and exciting composers seems, in retrospect, a significant bureaucratic blunder. For what it’s worth, we still have a profoundly moving film that sails on the strength of its original score: a mixture of strings and low, ominous textures punctuated by a haunting vocal-adjacent synth element that sounds not unlike an alien singing to itself as it coasts through the stars.

ARRIVAL possesses dramatic and thematic elements that would easily attract any major filmmaker, and the imagination reels at the possibilities of how others might have interpreted Heisserer’s prose. As it stands, however, the film is uniquely suited to Villeneuve’s particular sensibilities. It arguably appeals most immediately in its positioning as Louise as the central figure— a ready-made mold into which Villeneuve can inject his longtime artistic curiosity about feminine strength and matriarchal power. She possesses an intimidating intellect and an almost supernatural grasp of the mechanics of language across a variety of cultures; this gives her an unparalleled authority at the Montana site, effectively diminishing that of her military supervisors. For all their bluster and aggressiveness, they ultimately crumple when up against the wall that is Louise’s desire to execute her mission. Like Emily Blunt’s character in SICARIO, Louise seems to live a monastic, solitary life that revolves entirely around her job. We’re initially led, of course, to believe her isolation is unintended; a byproduct of personal tragedy. Ultimately, her loneliness is not so much born of loss as it is a state of quiet anticipation… of waiting for her life to really begin. She’s not a mother yet, but because ARRIVAL implies the dimension of time as circular or non-linear rather than an arrow, she has, in a way, always been a mother. Her entire life has been an unconscious effort to get to this point, arranging all the elements of her existence just so in anticipation of her maternal destiny. This idea does not reduce her, however— it reinforces and amplifies the fullness of her individuality and humanity. Speaking as a relatively new parent, the act of raising a child doesn’t necessarily render one’s self to one-sided subservience. Rather, it’s a bit like gaining the ability to see a new color that’s never existed before; the heart opens up to wield a love that might have previously seemed unimaginable, every day subsequently filling up with a constant marveling at the wonders of creation. Villeneuve clearly knows the feeling, allowing all of us to share in the sensation via Louise’s unconventional journey to motherhood. For all its foreboding atmospherics and undercurrents of dread, ARRIVAL finds Villeneuve at his most optimistic— ready to embrace the promise and the potential of our humanity as something special in a universe otherwise peppered with intelligent life.

ARRIVAL marks Villeneuve’s largest success story to date— at least since he arrived stateside. After a prestigious premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film would earn high marks from critics and $203 million in worldwide box office receipts. It would end its awards season run with no less than eight Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, and one win: Best Sound Editing. Perhaps more important than the victory of a gold statue, ARRIVAL would make long-overdue Oscar history with its nomination for cinematography, making Young the first African-American director of photography to receive the honor. Villeneuve’s ascent to the forefront of the American film industry was now fortified, built atop a solid foundation of award-winning and uncompromising work. The road ahead would take him to the precarious land of franchise filmmaking, with all its lucrative potential as well as the high risk of subservience to the demands of bottom-line-minded conglomerates. ARRIVAL, then, becomes a kind of last gasp of independent purity; the true end of an era. Villeneuve would perhaps be better suited than anyone to retain his artistic identity under these anonymizing conditions, but past performance is no guarantee of future success.

ARRIVAL is currently available on 4K ultra high definition Blu Ray via Sony

Credits:

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Produced by: Aaron Ryder, Dan Levine, David Linde, Shawn Levy

Director of Photography: Bradford Young

Production Designer: Patrice Vermette

Edited by: Joe Walker

Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. https://nofilmschool.com/2016/11/arrival-cinematographer-bradford-young-interview
  3. https://www.camtec.tv/news/bradford-young-discusses-camtec-vintage-ultra-primes-in-asc-mag
  4. Via Wikipedia: Calia, Michael. “A New Story in Sci-Fi Writer Ted Chiang’s Life: Hollywood”. The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on November 8, 2016. Retrieved November 8, 2016.
  5. Via Wikipedia: “Interview: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen – The Team at 21 Laps Talk Arrival and Stranger Things”. Awards Daily. November 29, 2016. Archived from the original on March 4, 2020. Retrieved March 4, 2020.

Via Wikipedia: Tartaglione, Nancy. “Denis Villeneuve Talks ‘Arrival’, “A Vacation From Darkness” & The “Berserk” Risk Of ‘Blade Runner’ Sequel – Venice Q&A”. Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on November 5, 2016. Retrieved November 5, 2016.

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