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ZAC STREVENS – Montreal
Denis Villeneuve isn’t prescient enough to have predicted the outcome of last week’s U.S. presidential election, nor are the good people at Paramount Pictures or Sony International. But, deliberate or not, it’s astonishingly timely that Arrival was released in North America just a few days after the world welcomed (well, kinda-but-not-really welcomed) a certain controversial President-elect. The complexity of language is at the heart of this film at a time when it’s perhaps never been more important for us to listen to each other.
We live in a divided world at the moment; a planet with many factions believing those with opposing views to be stupid, dangerous, ignorant, unworthy, or a combination of all four with an added pinch of some more abhorrent traits. We’re not hearing one another, instead assuming the worst of those we don’t agree with, a practice that almost universally does more harm than good. It’s human nature to be reactionary, but the incredibly fast pace at which the world moves in 2016 is forcing even the most rational person to forget to stop and think for a second; to correctly convey what they mean to say and to ensure they are fully understanding their supposed adversary.
12 alien ships place themselves across Earth, a monumental world event, at the beginning of Arrival. Bigger, admittedly, than the events that have transpired in our world over the last week, even though those real-life events were pretty bloody huge. Initially we only see reactions to these landings; the camera lingers on the face of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her students as they watch television coverage, the audience never being allowed to substantially see what those on-screen are seeing. We see Banks react to a tape of the aliens’ language as Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) reacts to her reaction. We see the “shell” in its immense impressiveness for the first time fully at the same time as Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Banks and Donnelly, with Weber, are heading a team tasked with translating the language of the alien race, thereby determining what their purpose is on Earth. The film’s message is clear: reactions are just as important as the actions that sparks them.
Let’s check some things off before we get into more discussion of the opening point.
- If Denis Villeneuve isn’t the hottest filmmaker on this planet presently, he’s at the head of the conversation. His pacing is as beautiful as his lens, which combines with cinematographer Bradford Young to ensure that relevance and awe drip from the screen. Arrival looks amazing and lusciously clean, just like Sicario, Prisoners, and Enemy beforehand. We should be grateful that it’s Villeneuve handling the delicate operation that is Blade Runner 2049.
- It would be understanding, though, for that pacing to initially put some people off here. Everything is happening and nothing is happening for the first 40 minutes.
- Adams, Renner, and Whitaker are all first-class demonstrations in restraint. All three make it look easy.
Villeneuve offers us a vision in Arrival: what it would look like for us to do what we need to do. Sites around Earth share data and information, working together as a species to find the answer to the most pertinent questions. But that vision is realistic, rather than utopian. After days of silence and unanswered questions, news outlets’ 24-hour coverage of events carry the tagline ‘Alien Crisis’ despite the fact there’s still no word as to why the aliens are here. We as a race fill the space of silence with conjecture and negative speculation, as would be expected. As someone states early on, “We’re in a world with no single leader. It’s impossible to just deal with one of us.” Meaning global co-operation comes with differing fears and agendas, with everyone believing they are doing the right thing, that they are the heroes with humanity’s best interests at stake. It’s a sobering depiction of our ability to do what’s necessary, but also a vital one. After all, I believe it was your mother that told you, “the right way and the easy way are two different things.”
Look, far be it from anyone to tell you what to do, but as a suggestion of what’s required from us as people right now, Arrival demands attention. It’s beautiful allegorical science-fiction, giving us a fantastic scenario to help decipher what’s happening in our current world.
No, it’s not specifically influenced by the next man to take the reigns of the Oval Office (it was filmed in 2015), but whatever the outcome had been on November 8th, the significance of what people said and meant afterwards – and how they said and meant it – couldn’t be overstated. And that’s what makes the timing of this film’s, err, arrival so fascinating in present terms.
The theme of language and understanding is, of course, universal and historically ubiquitous. Ted Chang believed so when he wrote Story of Your Life in the late-90s, the short-story on which this film is based. Villeneuve obviously looked around the globe recently and believed we all need another reminder. May we suggest you take the time to listen.