Dir: denis Villeneuve
Gen: From War to Peace: ALIENS IN THE LAST 50 YEARS OF CINEMA
The last in our series and in some ways a companion piece to our first, Close Encounters and Arrival are two films made almost half a century apart with a like-minded outlook toward alien contact.
Like many great science fiction films Arrival is adapted from a novel, in this case, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, a computer science graduate from Brown University who later studied at the Clarion Writers Workshop. With a foot in both camps, his writings tend to be rather scientific and “Story of Your Life” is no exception, asking questions of morality, causality and free-will while pushing our understanding of time and linguistics through the mass arrival of alien ships.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, the last of our sci-fi heroines and one of the more interesting as an individual character, certainly by the close of the film. A linguistics expert bereaved of a daughter who has seemingly immersed herself in work to move past this tragedy, she is brought on board by the US military where she meets Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the man in charge of the operation and Ian Donnely (Jeremy Renner), a physicist she is to work alongside with in trying to understand the aliens’ language.
Banks and Donnely’s’ first conversation takes place just 5 feet apart, but between radio mics - thus beginning the communicative complexity of the film. In time, they begin to understand and translate the aliens’ written and spoken word, complex pictographics designed by Martine Bertrand which were actually codified into a working language - a far cry from Mars Attacks’ ramblings. From here, they eventually ascertain the purpose of the alien arrival which turns the film completely upside down, playing with the chronology of the story and asking what we would do with truly life changing information for us as individuals and mankind as a whole.
Alien is a word used only a handful of times in the film, which in itself reflects the attitude towards the beings. Literally shrouded in mystery, they are enigmatic - in origin, appearance and purpose. Very little is understood about them until much later on. They are marvels once properly seen and their striking appearance and methods of communication are effectively impossible with practical effects, making Arrival a film that could not be made without significant progress in the field of CGI. Certainly nothing even remotely possible in the era of Close Encounters, where our series began. The very late reveal of the aliens’ full physical form is a clever piece of writing. By making the conversation the most important point of the film, their appearance takes a back seat; until the plot necessitates a full view and we are treated to one of the most unique interpretations of extraterrestrial life in cinema.
The reflective score from Johan Johansson plays a huge part in establishing the very sober and melancholic tone of the film. Similarly, the cinematography of Bradford Young, with what some have described as a milky look also contributed to the very unique aesthetic of the film. Not least of which aided by the very distinct, pebble-like spaceships designed by Patrice Vermette, as described by Mark Kermode as looking like they’re always on the verge of tipping over.
Arrival is quite an unusual alien film because it bases itself in linguistics rather than traditional science and draws much from its dramatic heart, as opposed to a more typical thriller or action inflection. Like other films in our series it leans more towards realism because the first bridge we’d have to cross is establishing a line of communication, as Contact and Close Encounters also highlight. These three films all feature meetings of alien and man where the journey of the protagonist is as important as the contact itself. In Close Encounters and Contact, the fact that a meeting takes place is the most significant part of the film, but Arrival takes the story a little further with the aliens bringing us a message that is as important to us as it us to them, we just need to be able to understand it first.
It sounds dull, but the tension and plot development in order to get there are fantastic. The film mostly follows Banks’ perspective, but gradually branches out to include more characters and motivations, broadening the scope of the event across the many alien landing sites, each with varied levels of success and their own issues of communication with the aliens and each other.
Once the aliens’ purpose and message are made clear, everything preceding that point is viewed in a very different light, requiring painstaking attention to fully appreciate the subtlety and complexity of the earlier events. Ultimately this revelation poses a massive moral obstacle to Banks, similar in significance to the dilemma posed at the end of Contact, but much on a much more personal level. It is no wonder that Villeneuve did such a fantastic job on Blade Runner 2049, a film which also grappled with massive concepts for the direction of humanity, straight after making Arrival.
Arrival is a great film to finish this series on, not least because it echoes a similar sentiment as the first in our series and allows us to see how far these ideas have evolved in almost 50 years, but also because its twist essentially requires a second viewing to fully appreciate. It reminds us that there is always more to see and understand within a film or genre, especially one as layered as science fiction often is.
The differences between the earlier films in our series and the latter in terms of execution are stark, but the sentiment behind these ideas are almost as old as the bones of literature itself. The many themes touched upon in this series are present in all forms of art, but the way we continue to attach these seemingly foreign ideas to science fiction is ever improving and ever compelling. As long as science fiction continues to innovate as it has done in the last half century, it will continue to be at the forefront of cinema, technically and spiritually. As fans of cinema, for our part in the progress of the genre and movement as a whole, we must do as the many heroes and heroines of the classics do; keep one eye on the ground, and the other fixed firmly on the skies.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) gazes at the mysterious alien ship in the distance.
Featuring series curator, Euan Foley, and Neon Eye's Calum Mowatt.
Where to watch
The full version of Arrival is available online or in stores across the UK.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.