Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016) – When twelve structures appear around the world, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the alien visitors.
Director Denis Villeneuve adds Arrival, an intellectually compelling and emotionally powerful film, to his streak of thought-provoking masterworks.
For an introspective interpretation of a familiar formula, one can expect visionary director Denis Villeneuve to deliver. From Incendies to Sicario, his films show consistent mastery in striking storytelling, unflinching from dark realities and brimming with intent. Similarly profound in meaning, his latest film Arrival raises pertinent questions to how our society deals with uncharted knowledge and perceived differences.
The divide becomes clear when twelve spacecrafts land on Earth’s terrain, its pilots eager to communicate. Fear has Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) adamant on fast conclusions of the visitors’ purpose, while linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) insists upon context and understanding.
It takes some convincing for Weber to grant Dr. Banks and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) the mission to communicate first-hand with the aliens – or the Heptapods. The American team is joined by eleven other countries, who work individually to decipher their respective obelisks.
Based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, Arrival goes beyond the inevitable themes of international diplomacy and war politics. The story fills a lacuna in the science fiction genre by using our language system as key to understanding humanity. It is an interesting starting point. After all, as Banks posits, language is the cornerstone of civilisation.
There are over 6,000 languages in the world today. Each linguistic structure takes shape as informed by our diverse world views. Every vocabulary tells a different story in cadence, size and complexity. Some words are transposed due to commonality, others created out of unique cultures. Simply put, how we communicate may offer insights into how we rationalise the universe.
Likewise, the Heptapod vernacular divulges their exceptional way of how they see the world. Their fluid written form conveys convoluted thoughts as a whole, rather than a separate word at a time. Unbounded by linearity in their language, how then do they perceive reality? This realisation brings Banks on her own philosophical expedition to make sense of her confounding memories.
Deeply moving in every second of revelation, her resultant voyage of self-discovery necessitates minimal exposition. To experience the events as they unfold – that is the only way to truly grasp the elegance and emotions of Denis Villeneuve’s layered works. As the puzzle pieces of Arrival gradually come together, synapses swim to connect in a satisfying gestalt that urges revisits.
The beauty of it all makes it hard to look away. Be it in the functional logograms or the otherworldly interior of the space craft, the design shows attention to every minute detail. Bradford Young’s breathtaking cinematography contributes surreal aesthetics, taking us into a world on the edge of a harrowing descent into dystopia.
Accompanying the cosmic visuals is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s gorgeous score, making the picture whole. To the ominous and ethereal oscillation between symphony and silence, the powerful narrative of Arrival leaves lasting impact in its rare, meditative trek.