Saturday, December 31, 2016

Film: Arrival

How would we communicate with aliens, if they ever made contact? Unless this question, along with physics, eternalism, linguistics, international relations and pacifism (or life, the universe and everything), sounds boring, you'll probably enjoy Arrival.

The new sci-fi film, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Sicario, the upcoming Blade Runner reboot) and based on a short story by Ted Chiang, explores all the themes above and more. At the heart of it is the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which contends that the language we use determines - or at least significantly influences - our world view. This idea is probed and dissected to an extent that seems just right, enough that it engages non-experts without alienating us.

Familiar philosophical disputes mingle with this distinguishing linguistic concept to great effect, and Amy Adams' understated (and excellent) performance allows the film's musings on non-linear time, telepathy and existential purpose to stand out. A chalky colour palette - the film is largely monochrome other than jolts of spacesuit orange - also helps.

The soundtrack is worth mentioning. Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose work includes the scores for Sicario, The Theory of Everything and Icelandic TV series Trapped, has created twenty suitably atmospheric, other-worldly songs, while Max Richter's poignant 'On the Nature of Daylight' opens and closes the film. Although the latter track has already featured in Stranger Than Fiction and Shutter Island, among other films, its use in Arrival seems particularly appropriate: Richter describes his album The Blue Notebooks as both an exploration of dreams and 'a meditation on violence'.

Arrival is the latest in a series of fantastically thoughtful and visually stunning sci-fi films, from Christopher Nolan's Inception and Interstellar to Gravity, Ex Machina and The Martian. (Brit Marling's more tangled, offbeat offerings, including Another Earth and new Netflix series The OA, also come to mind.)

There are irritants, of course. In classic Hollywood style, American patriotism leads to the Chinese being lazily portrayed as belligerent and game-obsessed, while the US overall appears to be an impotent, wide-eyed participant. (Their almost pacifist positions are all the more laughable considering recent events.) Co-star Jeremy Renner's character is unfortunately let off the hook despite ultimately shabby behaviour. But these are tolerable flaws.

Unlike the magnificently sprawling Interstellar, Arrival is a complete whole. Similar to its portrayal of time, the film is self-contained; each component links to another in a satisfyingly neat manner. While other ambitious features offer bags of unsolvable riddles, most of the queries put forward here are actually given answers. This somehow only increases its rewatchability - as soon as the foggy ending cleared and credits rolled, I wanted to dive into the spherical tale all over again.