Let’s make one thing clear- Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction drama about first contact, will not win the Oscar for Best Picture. The category is crowded with powerful adversaries, some deserving and some not (I’m looking at you, La La Land). Given its competitors and Hollywood’s aversion to science fiction, Villeneuve and his team are unlikely to go home with the top prize- however much they might deserve it.
Arrival is the story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who’s drafted by the US army after 12 alien space-crafts land on earth. Alongside her physicist colleague Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise and her team must decipher the creatures’ language. Her quest to discover the aliens’ purpose on earth is threatened by military intervention, and the failure of the research could lead to the destruction of mankind.
Villeneuve’s film is packed with stark, atmospheric images of the ‘heptapods’, allowing you to glimpse just enough of them to pique your intrigue. The simplicity of the alien crafts adds to their sense of foreboding, as does the beautiful circular language of the heptapods.
Arrival isn’t a flashy film, so if you want thrilling action sequences you should probably look elsewhere. Aside from a few set pieces, such as a scene set in a corridor in which gravity suddenly shifts, the film operates on a much quieter level.
Instead, what makes Arrival compelling is its insistence on the power of language. It’s Louise, not the forces commanded by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) or even Donnelly’s scientists, who makes the most progress in understanding the heptapods.
Language is the site from which most of the film’s tension derives. After Louise reads one of the heptapod’s sentences as “offer weapon”, the military’s refusal to acknowledge the nuances of interpretation threatens to plunge the world into chaos.
Louise recognises that words are “the first weapon drawn in any conflict”, but also “the foundation of civilisation”. The struggle between language’s capacity for division and union, between the individual and the collective, is the film’s heart.
Arrival is remarkable because it shows humanity coming together not to destroy, but to discover. The military is the film’s antagonist, antithetical to the communication that Louise attempts to cultivate.
It’s notable that the soldiers are the ones the film chooses to estrange; the blinding white light of the military helicopters outside Louise’s house seems like the true invasion, not the gentle attempt of the heptapods to foster understanding between the two races.
If the subject matter sounds heavy, that’s because it is. At times Arrival can be slow, with little to guide you through wave after wave of linguistic terminology. At the same time, the climax of the central plot sneaks up on you so quickly that it initially feels unsatisfying. The pacing of the film is subordinate to its grand, thematic texture, and as such the action suffers.
Yet the film is always interesting, and enhanced by the brilliance of its leads. Adams and Renner are never indulgent, crafting excellent performances despite the occasionally clunky dialogue (which often explicates themes that ought have been allowed to speak for themselves). Thanks to the lightness of Adams’s and Renner’s approaches, Louise and Ian are heroes who seem human.
Amy Adams in particular shines as Louise- however talented an actress Meryl Streep may be, Adams deserves her spot in the Oscar nominations this year. Without an actress of Adams’s calibre, the film’s puzzling subject matter would certainly alienate mainstream audiences.
Amidst Arrival’s commentary on the nature of society, Louise and Ian’s personal lives are what make the film beautiful, rather than merely thought-provoking. In the film’s opening moments, the audience sees Louise’s daughter grow and ultimately succumb to a terminal illness. Without wishing to spoil the film and its ending, Louise’s final decision is what gives Arrival its power.
Critics of science fiction will seek to reduce Arrival to a genre film, a niche sideshow with little beyond spectacle to contribute to culture. Yet science fiction distinguishes itself from all other genres through the extent of its fixation on change.
Sci-fi allows an audience to imagine fundamental shifts in society that would otherwise seem impossible.
Arrival dares to make a statement about how the world should be; it champions a society predicated on communication and the collective pursuit of knowledge. In the Trump era of post-truth and ‘alternative facts’, this is revolutionary.
Arrival will not be crowned Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, but it doesn’t matter. If the film preaches nothing else, it’s that coexistence is far more interesting than competition.