“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Thus spoke Sir Arthur C Clarke on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, and the profound changes of a first contact situation have been examined many times in serious science fiction, but rarely have they been portrayed quite as drab, muted and lifeless as in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Nebula and Sturgeon award winning Story of Your Life.
The twelve craft arrive without warning, their locations around the globe seemingly random, and in her university lecture hall Doctor Louise Banks (Dawn of Justice and Nocturnal Animals’ Amy Adams) is as unprepared as anyone else, but the vessels are silent, impervious to analysis and not broadcasting on any frequency.
“If this is some kind of peaceful first contact, why not just send one?” asks the news; perhaps like the Ramans who always do things in threes, the number has significance, but as the world waits in expectation and trepidation the media fan the flames of hysteria and distrust and in China, Russia and other political flashpoints the arrivals are met with riots.
Approached by Colonel Weber (Rogue One’s Forest Whitaker), a senior officer from the Montana site where the only ship in the United States hovers, Louise is astonished to hear and be asked for her opinion on a recording which she can only presume has been taken within one of the vessels. Asked what she would need to translate such inhuman noises, her response does not satisfy the Colonel but she is seconded regardless, grudgingly accepted as the superior candidate.
Transported by helicopter to Montana in the company of scientist Ian Donnelly (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Captain America: Civil War‘s Jeremy Renner), minimal coaching is given before conveyance to the aperture of the floating vessel where they are granted audience with the vast, multi-limbed beings who reside within, isolated from them and concealed within shifting vapours and, despite their technology, seemingly unforthcoming towards Louise’s attempts to establish a rudimentary dialogue.
Produced for the comparatively modest budget of $47 million, it is inevitable that Arrival cannot compete with the major science fiction films of recent years, Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian, even though it is aimed at a similar audience and released within the same window, but despite the always engaging headline cast of Adams and Renner it feels small with too many scenes set inside battlefield tents, and rather than focusing this limitation to an intimate experience of universal themes it also feels small minded.
With the object lesson not being the question of how humanity can communicate with the Heptapods so much as how they can communicate with each other even within their tribal units, Arrival can be frustratingly obtuse, particularly in the bluntly written mindsets of Agent Halpern (A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg) and Colonel Webber, clinging to procedure in situations beyond all precedent.
Expecting the translations to be immediate, comprehensive and infallible, Webber serves as a voice for the audience but never phrasing his questions as though clarifying an existing understanding so much as asking why someone attempting to decipher a language never before heard and more akin to whale song, never translated despite centuries of exposure, would start with basic words and syntax rather than complex ideas as though he genuinely doesn’t comprehend how a language is learned.
Written by Eric Heisserer who also scripted the expanded feature version of Lights Out and the pointless remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing, there is a feeling that the film is afraid to alienate the multiplex audience of a nation which has become willingly and complicity anti-intellectual, terrified of challenging them or expecting them to think deeply, and while ostensibly a science fiction film with the focus on language it is told firmly from the background of the humanities.
Though filled with graphic representations of the Heptapod language the breakthroughs are not adequately explained, nor is the essential concept of non-linear time adequately explored, a reticence which was never so pronounced with the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks, the Prophets of the wormhole on Deep Space Nine or the gleeful wibbly wobbliness of Doctor Who.
Throughout, Villeneuve’s vision is purposefully mundane and grey beneath its purpose, Louise a cog in a vast machine which constantly monitors those twelve locations around the world, a thousand viewpoints telling one story, and she reminds of Contact‘s Ellie Arroway in her refusal to compromise because she knows what is required and unwavering doubt in her own value, calmly and persistently progressing the task.
Where it also parallels Contact is that a key shift in the story is driven by an unprecipitated act of violence, a rogue element pushed by extremist beliefs who wish to sabotage relations with the visitors; unlike the sprawling ensemble cast of that film, all of whom had viewpoints, opinions, fields of expertise, filling the film with the dialogue of their ideas, Arrival talks but has little to say.
Unlike Contact where whole scenes could have been spun out of the ideas contained in each casually delivered line had there been sufficient time, this struggles to even offer one such moment, ironic for a film where communication is the central theme, the concentration of information into the most readily transmissible and understandable form.
Lacking the wonder of that film, nor does it offer the dazzle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the aspiration of Interstellar, and essentially there is not a single “wow” moment, either in the reveal of the ships or in Louise’s first glimpse through the helicopter window, part of the landscape, eerie but not overwhelming, nor the Heptapods themselves. With Villeneuve currently engaged in the production of Blade Runner 2049 from a script co-written by Green Lantern’s Michael Green, the signs are not encouraging.
Arrival is on general release from Thursday 10th November