The Language of Diplomacy
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Science fiction as a genre is often noted for space fights, aliens, and lightsabers (these days, we might also add “unnecessary sequels” to the list). While all three of those can be essential ingredients in such a film (not that that is necessary by any means), science fiction’s true roots belong in its progressive tenacity, not its action treachery. Sci-fi films were known to push the boundaries of space and time, pun intended, forcing audiences to confront real issues and bigotries of their time in a context that was entirely new. That was the brilliant balance struck by the interracial kiss on Star Trek, the allegories towards the South African apartheid state in Neill Bloomkamp’s District 9, and the pollution message brought by the incredible Children of Men (directed by the impeccable Alfonso Cuarón). While the allegories may not completely hold up in District 9 and an interracial kiss alone is not sufficient in and of itself, science fiction has functioned in many ways to also bring forth positive messages and allegories in a way that forces people to look at reality while simultaneously taking them so seemingly far away from it. It is that combination of confrontation and positivity that Arrival strives for but thin characterizations in two key characters stop it from garnering that perfection. Dennis Villeneuve’s (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) latest directorial effort, however, is nevertheless an incredible film, one that is buoyed by a sharp focus on the vitality of diplomacy, communication, and intelligence being of greater value than militarism, self-preservation, and the inevitable destruction that is wrought from that mindset.
Arrival begins with a dreamy sequence that at first seems thinly designed to capture the audience’s attention with sympathy towards Louise Banks (a terrific Amy Adams), a troubling sign at first because a film should be able to garner sympathy for its lead, female character without giving her a dead child in order to do so. But that aspect of the film is slowly given more and more weight, woven in with the quandary of the alien visitors until it reaches a thunderingly poignant moment at the film’s conclusion. Louise is then teaching a linguistics class where most of the students have seemingly decided not to show up, but quickly news reports make note that strange ships have appeared out of nowhere across the globe. The random event causes major disruptions everywhere instantaneously and Louise, definitely more put together (and in some part simply resigned) manages to take the news with a calmness that is almost envious. She still shows up to work, seemingly looking for something meaningful. She’s sitting quietly when a senior military officer named Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up in her office, asking for her help in translations that might be arriving from the aliens that have suddenly appeared on Earth. Initially rebuffed, the Colonel comes back knocking, the circumstances becoming more dire as within just two days, mass panic has taken ahold of the public that is increasingly worried, frightened, and distrustful of a government that is seemingly withholding critical pieces of information from them.
Louise is put on a team with military theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the two are put to work with a team to decipher the language marks the two aliens in the Montana pod leave behind. The task is a difficult one and it is especially difficult in a way sometimes people are simply to understand. Communication is difficult. It is difficult enough to simply talk to someone you’re romantically interested in and ask them politely for a cup of coffee. It is almost astronomically more so to ask an alien species what their purpose is on Earth. Louise lays it out succinctly, beginning with the inherent concept that the aliens’s concept of a question may not match what the human idea of a question is. They may not think in terms like “purpose” and perhaps they didn’t even arrive with that idea in mind, but to communicate with a species that uses ring-like structures as words and sentences even is going to take time. Time is of the critical essence here and Arrival is quite smart about portraying how time adds an additional political pressure to the entire endeavor. The arrival of CIA Agent David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) adds layers to the complexity at hand, muddying the waters from a political perspective that is just focused on the presentation of the policy and not its minutia. Louise simply wants to communicate and use intelligence, perception, and empathy to construct a solution that would be the most feasible, the least dangerous, and thus the most constructive. The internet age exacerbates the circumstances of political leadership where those leaders bow more to self-preservation and their careers rather than the public good and it becomes even more difficult for sanity to prevail.
Arrival is by no means a perfect film. Eric Heisserer’s otherwise fantastic script based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” makes two critical errors that keep it from perfection. One error is centered around Colonel Weber, who simply appears to be crafted for the sake of being an antagonist at times and little else. His role within the strict hierarchy of the military is understandable, but the script rarely goes beyond that to bother making him a more relatable, complex character. Same goes for Agent Halpern, who is on the receiving end of the film’s worst dialogue. He embodies the role of an agency more concerned about protecting its assets and information but the script never makes him into a complex character, either. Those stereotypical characterizations prevent Louise from struggling against her antagonists in ways that her character truly deserved. But outside of that paradigm, Louise does receive a complex, realized characterization that female characters rarely garner, let alone female lead characters. The cinematography is thoroughly stunning, the landscape shots in particular feeling thoroughly engrained in an eeriness, and Villeneuve’s direction is sharp and assured. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score may be the film’s greatest technical accomplishment, seemingly blurring in with the sound design to create moments of great mystery and triumph alike. Arrival falls short of perfection, but the messages the film relays about working together are thoroughly commendable and keeping in with the true mission of scientific accomplishment. It doesn’t make any sense for countries to hoard their data, or to guard their borders to try and contain their accomplishments as if they were the most precious resources only if they belonged to them and them alone. When there are visitors who don’t recognize borders from the heavens, the only palpable solution lies in communication and the empathy it can give birth to. It’s notably much more difficult to achieve so in actual practice, but it’s the only path that can bring forth any pathways of salvation for humanity.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Produced by: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Screenplay by: Eric Heisserer
Based on: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cinematography by: Bradford Young
Edited by: Joe Walker
Production Company(s): FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films, 21 Laps Entertainment
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Dates: November 11, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Paramount Pictures @ YouTube
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