Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama, Mystery
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Eric Heisserer
based on Ted Chiang’s short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cinematography: Bradford Young
Denis Villeneuve’s Venice-premiered Golden Lion contender, based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story, is this year’s annual hardcore Sci-Fi offering from Hollywood, a trend inaugurated with Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY (2013), and followed by Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR (2014), Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN (2015). ARRIVAL dauntlessly tackles a probable but critical scenario on the precondition that one believes there are life forms off-world, which most Sci-Fi works heedfully gloss over: What if the extraterrestrial creatures’ communicative mechanism, their pattern of logic and intelligent competence, or in a more interactive sense – their “language”, is totally different from ours and radically beyond our ken, how can we communicate with them, even on a very basic level?
This basically sets the context for Villeneuve’s solemnly cerebral head-scratcher. Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist, becomes the chosen one, enlisted by the US military Colonel Weber (Whitaker), when mysterious spacecrafts arrive on earth without warning (12 different loci across the globe, including one in Shanghai, my hometown). The team also includes the mathematician Ian Donnelly (Renner) and Captain Marks (O’Brien), they are sent to investigate the reason of the arrival when our world is veering into a global war (where China usurps Russia as the driving force spoiling for patriotic warfare). They enter the spacecraft hovering above the US soil, which grants its access every 18 hours, confounded and staggered by the anti-gravity abnormality, the elite team reaches the meeting point where the first contact has been cautiously attempted and initiated between human beings and the highly intellectual aliens, coined as “heptapod”, whose appearance resembles a giant octopus with multiple tentacles, from which they can express their language in an ideogram form (a grand circle with hieroglyphical inspirations).
Louise takes baby steps in the ongoing progress of interpreting heptapod’s language and deciphering their intention, but finds it extremely fascinating, concurrently, segments of her teenage daughter Hannah (a palindrome name aptly selected to comply with the novel’s determinism slant), who died prematurely in her adolescence due to some terminal disease, which audience has already seen from the film’s beginning as an intimately heart-breaking flashback, repeatedly materialize in Louise’s consciousness, yet, the intriguing part is, what we perceive as flashback is actually flash-forward, at that point of the time-line, Louise hasn’t yet to be pregnant (although she has already met her future husband), it is through her contact with heptapods, she is enlightened and inexplicably acquires the ability to foresee her future, thus, will she still want to bring Hannah into this world after realizing that she will lose her forever soon after?
A more urgent question is the purpose behind the heptapods’ arrival, it is always delicate to elucidate a recondite scientific ideology clearly using this particular medium, how can we comb through their unique realm of thinking and behavior which has literally surpassed the scope of human understanding, to presume a plausible answer? So, it is not surprising that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer opt for a more blasé and straightforward solution (Louise’s bestowed prescience) to nip the impending war in the bud and heartily concretize the integrity of human species on a more vast and mysterious galactic map.
Amy Adams staunchly carries the whole movie under her shoulder, touches the right chord as a savvy and doughty wonderstruck scientist who experiences the most unthinkable encounters and remains true to her cause, exemplifies the superlative virtues of us earthlings, she is magnificent to behold and the warmth and courage generated from her character are so vehemently affecting. Jeremy Renner, contributes a low-key, almost too well-disposed and even nondescript presence in the back seat, devoid of any kind of malice or ill-feeling, a fitting analogue of George Clooney’s chummy persona in GRAVITY, just to be supportive and helpful to our heroine.
ARRIVAL confidently manifests a striking tack of visual austerity (breathtaking set designs and awe-inspiring VFX teamwork to create heptapods, their written language and their Brobdingnagian flying vehicles), which rings true to 21st century’s zeitgeist: minimalist, ultra-streamlined, less-is-more and apocalyptic, there is no flashy action set pieces to numb our senses, instead, the story adheres to Louise’s personal revelation from A to Z, and the unworldly permeation of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is as soul-stirring as the images we are blessed to watch. After all, perhaps, the upcoming sequel of Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi chef-d’oeurve BLADE RUNNER (1982) might not sound as awful and doomed as it seems to be, a distinctive style shift can really pique our interest with the taste-maker Villeneuve at the helm.
A second viewing in the local cinema, the film gets even better, shorn of all the mind-boggling question marks, the narrative retains its beautifully rendered poise and inspirational wonderment, outlines the tip of a cosmic philosophical iceberg with very minimal visual aids but a thoroughly humble attitude: how profound and dauntingly incomprehensible the universe is and how ignorant and inherently belligerent we humans are.
The sombre and muted color scheme unobtrusively counterpoint the mythical aura of the surreal scenario, the “future” flash-forward and its ethereal attendant score, and Amy Adams, braving her “chosen one” role as an ambassador between oracular aliens and fumbling earthlings, is utterly entrancing, and it is a tremendous challenge to portray a seemingly nondescript character (there is barely any background information to buttress her albeit she is the go-to linguist) since she is way too savvy and can never deign to hyperbole for the sake of theatrics, yet, she convinces you, touches you and completely holds together the theory in spite of the marginally over-egged deus ex-machina in the coda, which could have been rendered with more gravitas and equanimity. In any case, one can only sincerely wishes the team best luck in the on-going awards season, and so far so good!