I haven’t been nearly as wowed as most by director Denis Villeneuve’s previous pictures. Enemy, I’ll grant you, is an effective little piece, albeit one that feels like an extended episode of an anthology series rather than a fully-engineered movie in its own right, but Prisoners is a ridiculously overwrought piece of manipulative, melodramatic nonsense that somehow swayed critics. Likewise, Sicario; magnificently directed, but in terms of content not much more than B-grade pulp. Indeed, Villeneuve’s choices make him seem, unfortunately, a wholly suitable inheritor of the Blade Runner legacy from Sir Ridders, another director with a negligible eye for a robust screenplay. To an extent, Arrival exhibits this problem too. But, while the script from Eric Heisserer isn’t clear of its fair share of flaws, they’re mostly thrown into relief by the movie’s persuasive emotional core, and the conviction of Amy Adams’ performance.
It took me a while to come on board, though. There is, like Enemy, a feeling that this is a beefed-up short story with a twist (which it is), and in terms of the latter aspect, I wonder how satisfying it will be to revisit. The first contact scenario, which leads the movie, has been well-wrung over the years, and cryptic aliens inviting mankind to rise to the challenge of bettering themselves goes at least as far back as The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Add to that several rather crude subplots (of course there are military guys who want to sabotage matters, you can tell from the first moment you see Mark O’Brien’s character; of course the Chinese are the most belligerent bunch, as it would have to be either them or the Russkies; and of course there’s tension between the different impulses of science, military and – purity ahoy – the creative, communicative, feminine linguistic arts), and the rather fundamental question of why they didn’t first try communicating with the aliens through basic, common images rather than laborious language (answer: because then the aliens wouldn’t be able to deliver their oh-so-clever puzzle gift, and consequently this would be considerably shorter and far less tear-jerking), and I had the feeling Villeneuve was set to deliver something as ultimately dissatisfying as Sicario (which promised a perceptive insight into the policing of the war on drugs but devolved into Death Wish ninja ex-lawyer on the rampage in the final reel).
I also had waverings over the some of the stylistic choices. The general comportment of the aliens, towering away in a fog-shrouded environment separated by glass, is highly reminiscent of Torchwood’s one decent (really good, even, until the finale) outing, Children of Earth. In contrast to that story, where the threat is pervasive, here there’s a question mark over the alien’s motives that never really feels sustained; we know they essentially mean well because of the overbearing military, the inter-nation bickering, and the honest heart of our Amy, able to see what’s what (as linguist Louise Banks). Villeneuve brings on the ominous with his cavernous, hewn, anti-sci-fi spaceship interiors, accompanied by composer Jóhan Jóhannson’s unsettling Zimmer horns, and contrasts it so entirely with the Malick-esque handheld of (what turn out to be) Louise’s magic hour future reminiscences, complete with by Jóhan Jóhannson’s achingly sensitive strings, that it looked as if he would be inflating a whole bag of style over content.
And yet, I didn’t come away feeling short-changed. Once you get past wondering why Louise can’t just show an image for our planet as a starting point for putting together the question “Why have you come to Earth?”, the portrayal of linguistics is engrossing and dramatically propulsive, with thought clearly having gone into how to express a completely alien language.
And the causal paradox that enables Louise to prevent a potentially very nasty altercation (although, equally, the aliens could probably just brush off any paltry human firepower, given the failed sabotage attempt) ought to be a complete turn-off, as a variant seems to be regurgitated in every other sci-fi scenario these days. It gets ridiculously overused, and writers bewilderingly seem to think the crux of its impossibility is in some way clever; all it really does is show an unwillingness to wrestle with the loose ends of the entangled logic strands they’ve chosen to play with (Heisserer has such dubious credits to his name as the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and The Thing prequel remake, so the jury’s still out on his potential). Star witness for the prosecution is the tired, habitually glib use of such paradoxes by Steven Moffat, rigging the deck in any given Doctor Who script he can’t be arsed to think through (put another way: this kind of thing was thoroughly exposed, rather cleverly, as not really very clever at all by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and should have encouraged writers to be very wary of going there).
But, while future General Shang (Tzi Ma) whispering his wife’s dying words to Louise in her future vision, a future vision that enables her present self to whisper Shang’s wife’s dying words to prevent present Shang attacking his craft, is rather pat, Villeneuve manages to deliver it in a manner that feels almost earned, and the explanation for the aliens’ perception of time (writing a sentence from both ends to meet in the middle) has the sketchy appeal of a satisfying concept (that said, I don’t think the picture is ultimately any different to its peers, as it is using exactly the same devices and architecture).
More than that, the twist of the grief-stricken Louise, who is actually trying to cope with these future memories, doesn’t feel like a cheat, or a cheap trick, thanks to the manner in which the director enables Adams’ performance to breathe, and more so by virtue of the dramatic heft of Louise’s decision to go ahead and have the daughter she knows is destined to die (and so to enter into a relationship with the man she knows will leave her, in response to keeping that knowledge from him).
This element is almost the antithesis to the equivalent Moffat timey-wimey bullshit. Where that progressively removed all resonance and consequence from actions with a magic wave of a wand/sonic screwdriver, Arrival suggests that complete awareness of what will be leads to a kind of deterministic acceptance, a recognition of the inevitability of all experience, good and bad, and the futility of attempting to separate the perceived negative from the totality. It appears this was the explicit intent of Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, in which free will derives from the very act of accepting what is fated to be (quite how this meshes with the very act of awareness surely influencing the events on the “repeats”, or “rehearsals” I don’t know; certainly, that’s the major issue I had with Time Crimes).
Having said that, I can see why the Entertainment Weekly reviewer felt dissatisfied that the picture fell back on a life-affirming message, since it wasn’t the film he wanted to see, but trying to suggest Sunshine as a better option isn’t going to really help his cause (partly, the writer over-emphasises the heroic act of Louise here, since that aspect comes across very much as a nuts-and-bolts third act galvaniser, so is neither here nor there in terms of the choices relating to all that is closest to her).
Also of note is that Arrival is implicitly anti-eugenics as it relates to abortion (and by the same token casts the scientist as the one who clinically advocates such an attitude). On another level, one might draw parallels between Louise’s awareness and decision to experience the pleasure and the pain of a life foretold with proponents of reincarnation who suggest it involves a “viewing” of likely key experiences in the life to come prior to taking the plunge again.
Such trains of thought do rather suggest questions the film – perhaps rightly, since its designed to provoke rumination rather than lay everything out on a plate – avoids, such as: does the mere fact of perceiving time as the aliens and Louise do inevitably lead to this state of stoicism, or can one reject a future foreseen, if one so desires? And what would the consequences be for someone who sought only to pursue the tangibly positive experience? And what is this gift’s impact on, say, the military-industrial complex that figures so heavily? We see Louise back teaching, passing on her knowledge, but wouldn’t the uniforms demand first dibs on envisioning the future deeds of their potential enemies, and draft her to provide exclusive training?
Without Villenueve and Heisserier putting full stops after it, one is left to infer the former is the case, that the understanding of their language leads to an entirely different state of consciousness and as such acceptance; the aliens’ gift is one of perception, such that humanity is brought together by something externally intangible, rather than, say, corporate greed masquerading under a banner of globalism, which is quite apposite.
In general, I think the biggest compliment I can pay Villeneuve is that he breathes life into a screenplay that could easily leave one feeling underserved, that the shortcomings of its causal complications could have overwhelmed it. Instead, you’re left with the melancholy of Louise’s choice, and her recognition that it was the only choice she could make.
The other performances are fine enough, from Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg to Jeremy Renner, as curiously cast as an astrophysicist as Denise Richards was a nuclear one in The World is Not Enough (credit to him for keeping a straight face with his last line, however, extolling the importance of Louise to him in the cornball manner of a Richard Curtis screenplay), but this Adams’ show all the way, so it’s no wonder she’s putting her Oscar hopes on it, rather than Nocturnal Animals.
Owen Gilberman wrote a mystifying piece in Variety (at his editor’s behest, no doubt) suggesting alien movies had had their day on account of the lowly takings of Arrival, little more than 24 hours before another piece in the same rag noted how its first weekend’s box office had exceeded expectations. Which just shows journos will come up with any old guff for a quick buck. This opened on the strength of its trailers, but it just isn’t styled as a crowd-pleaser. Consequently, Gilberman should really have noted that there’s still an enormous appetite for alien movies, such that the public will even show up to those that don’t offer blockbuster thrills.
Where does this leave Blade Runner 2049? Well, Jóhannson’s a fine composer, so I’m less sad than I might be that Vangelis isn’t returning. But mainly, Hampton Fancher’s script needs to be mightily impressive, if Villeneuve isn’t going to leave us feeling slightly empty; his dishes are well cooked, but they don’t tend to have all the necessary ingredients. There’s a co-ordinating impersonal quality to his facility as a director that is very much of an ilk to latter-day Scott (although in terms of composition, atmosphere and performance, Villeneuve consistently outshines him), when what is needed is that charged, scrupulous dedication to getting the very most from the material, and the consequent yen for discovery, that made Alien and Blade Runner so stunning.