It’s easy to recognise a strain of apocalyptic self-harm in American cinema of the last decade: how many times have we seen New York smashed to pieces by natural disaster or the last remnants chased across the map by a zombie army? The fin de siecle nature of this moment in the history of the world’s most powerful country has inexorably given birth to particular strains of doom-mongering—rather than the big Other of foreign invasion, modern disasters are far more likely to involve the comfortable social contract being broken by the people who live within it. Americans, it seems, are more scared of each other than at any point in the past.
Given the political events of the last week, it might be easy to justify, but the malaise runs deeper than that. From The Matrix on, SF cinema has increasingly adopted elements of Lovecraftian horror to bolster its contemporary relevance. Culture, normality, it tells us, is just a thin skin stretched above a terrifying abyss, and exposure to that reality is what put us in touch with our primal drives. Oblivion, Moon, Coherence, even Inception are prime examples of the obsessions of modern American science fiction, and the massive success of The Walking Dead shows us the appeal of that idea married to a right-wing survivalist ideology.
Thank your deity of choice for the entrance of Arrival, then. A high-concept masterpiece in the vein of earlier, more hopeful SF, Denis Villeneuve’s film pays homage to many of those tropes while utterly transcending them.
To synopsise, aliens arrive on Earth and it’s up to a team of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out how to communicate with them while around them paranoia and resentment force humanity’s hand towards destruction. Adams’ performance, likely to be overshadowed by her competent work in last week’s Nocturnal Animals, is worthy of note. She carries the film, proving in the process that not only can she emote in the standard Hollywood fashion, but provide valuable human context to a complex and demanding plot structure.
Based on the Nebula-award-winning short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival deals with hard concepts, including the nature of language, free will and determinism and the impact of our cultural conditioning on how we conceptualise reality. Sharing too many details of the plot would irreparably damage your experience, but be ready to be challenged as a viewer.
The obvious touchstone for viewers is 1997’s Contact, a film with which it shares many touchstones: the valorisation of science and scientists, an evident disdain for bureaucracy and the rule of force. However, Arrival goes beyond Carl Sagan’s opus in several important respects. It’s characters are rarely ciphers for simplistic moral oppositions, conflict is not resolved simply by reference to logic and most importantly, the challenge presented by the alien presence is not simply scientific, but existential.
It is worth noting, as well, that the production design and camera work is simply stunning, even by the standards of modern cinema. Competence and craft are evident throughout, including the tight scripting and plotting, acting and on into the sound design. This is a wonderful cohesive work, and deserves to be viewed with as much rapt attention as one can muster.
Go and see this film, and engage your mind. You will not be disappointed.