Arrival puts the Science in Science Fiction

It is a common assumption that a successful science fiction movie includes time travel, laser gun fights or space exploration and strange planets. Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has already done astounding work on Sicario, is a reinterpretation of its own genre and does not confirm to these standards. The movie script was based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story of your life (1998), who won two awards for it. It was adapted for screen by Eric Heisserer, who also wrote and co-wrote the scripts for Lights Out and The Thing.


Almost completely devoid of the heated action of Sci-Fi Blockbusters like Star Trek or the Star Wars series, the film focuses both on the scientific and the human element of making first contact with an alien species. The viewer should be prepared for slow pacing and story development, due to a twist: Instead of communicating about math or advanced technology, humanity is confronted with having to find a way to decode a completely strange language, while being all at sea about the intentions of their more than just foreign visitors. In the center of action is Amy Adams, giving us a calm and on-point performance of the stressed linguist Louise Banks.


The film begins with a voice over by Adams, introducing us to the setting of the film and the overall theme of it: fate, memory, and the subjectivity of time. Twelve spaceships have appeared all over the world, hovering all alone and quietly, waiting for visitors. Adams’ character is swept away by the military, taking her to solve the biggest current riddle of humanity: What do the aliens want? Why are they here? A race against time begins as 12 different governments struggle to work together while humanity is slowly freaking out.


Arrival does not need big explosions or shooting scenes to produce a grand effect on the viewer. Villeneuve shows how to make Sci-Fi movies with natural special effects, and they have the same impact. The heptapods, which are so-called because of their seven legs, are just hinted behind a big window and the full extent of their proportion is barely displayed. They communicate with sounds which are not distinguishable for human ears and their written communication is based on an ink-like substance which displays a circle in different shapes and vanishes after seconds.


The language components of the movie were supported by an actual linguist. Jessica Coon, a McGill University associate professor in syntax and indigenous languages, helped both the team behind the cameras as well as the actors in front of them. It was her who revised the “ink blotches”, called logograms, designed by Patrice Vermette and her team, and it was her who briefed Amy Adams about the actual work process of language deciphering. And while we do get the needed amount of inter language charade and process shortening to keep the movie interesting, the movie still feels close to the truth. Language, as Banks tries to explain, is messy. Sometimes “Weapon” can mean “Tool”, and for some cultures, these two things can be exactly the same. It is this cultural difference between humanity and the aliens that makes the movie possible.


What strikes the viewer most are the close up sequences in the movie. Arrival manages with sparse dialogue and the viewers are mostly confronted with the character’s faces, expressions and thoughts. Arrival guides through Louise’s perception of the incident and her thoughts. Even when she enters the army’s tent for the first time, she is the focus and the tight focus hinders the viewer from perceiving details about the situation other team members have to deal with. In situations where two or more people are involved, we mostly get close-up shots of her face’s impression. This almost intimate insight into Louise Banks life would not have worked if it wasn’t for Amy Adams stellar performance. She does not fail to portray a scientist caught between frustration and endless curiosity, lost in a big house in a big world, slowly but surely finding her place in the bigger picture.


But the movie could not succeed on the basis of her performance alone. Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly is both her aide and confidential, and even though he also is her love interest, the movie is not dominated by the blossoming romance. Forest Whitaker, who portrays the character of Colonel Weber. While in most science fiction, the conflict between military and scientists arise unavoidably, Whitakers character tries his best to understand and support Banks and Donnelly, hoping not to start an inter species war.


Arrival is thoroughly well made. Bot its cinematic images and its cast are convincing. It gives way to an important thought: there is no need to be afraid of alien and rather trying to understand it with an open mind.

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