Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Eric Heisserer
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
116’; USA 2016.
In a not too distant future that could very well be our present, twelve mysterious alien objects land in different locations on Earth. The various governments try to understand the aliens’ intentions. In order to communicate with them, the Americans send a team led by linguist Louise Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly. While the world heads towards a global military crisis, Louise commits herself totally to communicating with the strange aliens, even if it could cost her her own life…
Denis Villeneuve’s latest effort (after his three different but equally interesting movies Incendies, Enemy and Sicario), in competition at the Venice Film Festival 2016, is a fine example of science fiction. He knows how to combine spectacle and tension, mixing them with by no means trivial themes from linguistics, mathematics, physics and politics. He tells a story about understanding and accepting others, at the same time showing the way in which language shapes our thinking (and vice versa) and our way of conceiving time.
It could seem like an abstruse and potentially moralistic combination, but the small miracle of Villeneuve’s movie is being able to convey all of this in a way that is both wonderfully engrossing and respectful of the audience’s intelligence. It involves using the stylistic tools of the genre that, in its best moments(from Spielberg, to Star Trek, to Nolan), has always had a passion for the philosophical questions.
Villeneuve builds tension with suggestive and disturbing images (alien ships that look like monoliths levitating above the planet’s surface) as well as the judicious use of music and sound, though avoiding as much as possible the splatter effect or self-serving surprise. There are tentacled (but never particularly scary) aliens; there are governments and a paranoid military; a nuclear threat, international tensions; but those are not the heart of the story.
The main character, embodied with conviction and energy by Amy Adams, is a linguist who deeply believes in the possibility (and the duty) of communication, and her orientation towards others (perhaps even the absolute “Other”) is the real engine of the story. Among the other notable performers, Jeremy Renner plays the significant part of a scientist assigned to Louise in the mission of creating a bridge towards the aliens. Here too, for once, we get past a trite and simplistic opposition of science vs. faith to explore the differences and the complementarity of their methods, but also the different male and female approaches, so that the key to the whole affair is precisely in the relationship the two hide.
The plot revolves completely around time, our perception of it and the exclusively human gift of reordering it into history, with language as an instrument of communication, of expression, but also as a powerful and ambiguous tool to describe and shape reality. The scientific paradox is around the corner, but Arrival plays it in a more existential and less metaphysical way than Interstellar (a more ambitious but less complete film, which nevertheless it resembles) did, with a very successful intellectual and emotional outcome.
In the end, the salvation of humanity is played more in terms of relationships between individuals (eyes to the concept of “zero sum game”) that the planetary forces and, in a climate where lack of knowledge often means hostility, Arrival is an as stubborn as reasonable hymn to the human ability of offering heart, hands and mind to the other in a perspective of reciprocal acceptance.
Problematic elements: some tense scenes within the limit of this genre.