Arrival (2016) confirms my view that Denis Villeneuve is one of the most interesting directors working today. Villeneuve makes moody, even austere, art house films employing big name Hollywood actors in pictures that exploit genre conventions while subtly undermining audience expectations. Prisoners was a crime film with a revenge plot that undercut the notion of revenge; Sicario was a morose thriller that applies the logic of a play by Samuel Beckett to the war against drugs. Arrival is a science fiction film about first contact with intelligent beings that embraces all the clichés of such movies -- it's like The Day the Earth Stood Still updated to the age of Trump that ends up some place wholly unexpected although in a way that is logically (and, even, schematically) developed. It's an excellent film, although, perhaps, a bit too gloomy for most people's taste. The audience with me in Austin, Minnesota where I saw the film was clearly baffled by it and left the theater muttering that they didn't exactly know what had happened -- the viewer keeps waiting for violent special effects and some sort of cataclysm but what happens is strangely anti-climactic, a curiously philosophical denouement that is moving, but pictorially flat, intentionally unimpressive.
Vast black spaceships that look something like bisected watermelon seeds on a colossal scale have appeared at 12 locations on earth. The space ships hover over cities and vacant wasteland and no one can figure out what they want. A female linguistics professor, played by Amy Adams without make-up and with no gesture toward any kind of glamor, is drafted by the military to communicate with the aliens. She is taken by helicopter to a remote valley in Montana where one of the 1500 foot long space-ships is hovering next to an impromptu military base. There she encounters the aliens in their ship and, ultimately, deciphers their system of writing. The various nations encountering the aliens become increasingly fearful -- the bad faith of colonialism hangs over the more developed countries and they hypothesize that the space-men have come to spread dissension in the world, to get the nations to war with one another and, in that fashion, conquer the planet. The fragile alliance of military men and scientists from different nations dissolves into paranoia and, it seems, that China and Russia are about to attack the space-ships and trigger a war with the aliens. Things are not helped by right-wing media ala Fox Network stirring up viewers -- some disgruntled GIs put a bomb in the throat of the Montana space-ship, detonating it and killing one of the two aliens in the vessel. Everything is poised on the brink of an international crisis and blood-bath when the potential conflict is suddenly and decisively defused by the heroine's actions. Averting war is much less dramatic than commencing a war and, so, the film's climax is a little bit disproportionate to the astonishing visuals that precede it -- the heroine makes a cell phone call from a kind of decontamination chamber and the threat of holocaust dissolves. Intercut with this story are scenes showing Amy Adams with her daughter, a beautiful child that we learn has died as a teenager.
Arrival is visually impressive, although everything seems calculated to be darker, less bright and colorful, and stranger, than an audience would likely expect. Adams is a teacher and the aliens arrive while she is standing in front of an empty lecture hall -- the students are all watching TV or scrutinizing the news on their cell-phone. We see her go home and rest in bed, catatonically watching hazy images of the big space ships. Everything is rain-soaked, wet -- the opening shot shows a dark wooden ceiling made with tongue and groove wood like a floor; the camera glides along the ceiling to reveal a window opening in cinemascope ratio onto a misty lake surrounded by pine trees in the fog. (It seems to be somewhere on the Puget Sound.) This shot is later mirrored by images inside the space-ship in which the camera glides along a surface that might be a floor or a ceiling to frame the cinemascope ratio of a kind of pale, foggy aquarium in which the space creatures are floating -- it's the same form of image and suggests that everything takes place, as it were, in the womb of the black space vessel. (A pair of wine-glasses in still-life at the corner of the opening shot establishes a romantic subtext crucial to the film.) A helicopter panorama of the space craft in the valley in Montana shows a lush trough between low wooded ridges over which great masses of fog are rolling like rivers -- at the head of the swampy-looking valley the great space ship is suspended like one of Magritte's great rock boulders silently floating in mid-air. It's a remarkable image and haunting, particularly because understated and not overtly spectacular. The interior of the space-ship, an immensely long tube that is like an Escher print -- you walk on the wall and it becomes the ceiling underfoot -- leads to sealed chamber where we can dimly descry the space-creatures. They look at first like elephants in the mist and, then, sometimes like banyan trees -- the aliens are called heptapods and are featureless octopus-like creatures with delicate tentacles that themselves are fractal miniatures of their bodies. The tentacles open into seven smaller tentacles and disgorge sprays of black ink. The ink shapes in pictograms that look like rings encrusted with filigree-shaped patterns -- this is how the creatures communicate. Unlike many films in which the strangeness of the aliens is squandered by familiarity, these fabulous beasts remain intensely other throughout the entire film.
If spoilers bother you, now stop reading.
Viewed objectively, Villeneuve constructs the film from pretty well-worn and threadbare materials. The space creatures bear some slight resemblance to the space monsters orbiting earth every Halloween in the Simpson's Treehouse of Horror episode -- they don't have one eye and aren't visibly slathering, but the creatures in Arrival are standard versions of the space octopus or space-squid, a tentacle-monster fairly well-known in sci-fi. Furthermore, it turns out that the monsters are, in fact, Tralfamadorians from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, the movie in which the hero's contact with dime-magazines aliens causes Billy Pilgrim to become unstuck in time. (Indeed, the plot resemblance to some aspects of Slaughterhouse Five is so close that Vonnegut's novel deserves a credit.) The film's premise, possibly disputable but interesting, is that our grammar confines us to a linear view of time -- we have past and future tenses and this traps us in an illusory reality in which all moments of time are linear and not simultaneously available to our perception. (The space-squids' use their ink to make circular forms -- the circle is their grammar suggesting that past and future are a single serpent-like worm Ouroboros devouring its own tail.) As the heroine becomes immersed in the space-squids' language she becomes unstuck in time. Like Billy Pilgrim, she can perceive all moments in her life as a simultaneous array -- thus, she can participate in the future as well as the past at will. In this way, the language of the space-creatures becomes a kind of grammatical time machine. The baby girl that we see in the first scenes in the move is, in fact, the product of sex between the heroine and hero that occurs after the crisis caused by the aliens is averted -- it's an encounter that happens in the house with the misty window on the lake and the two wine-glasses. (Amy Adams is accompanied by a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner -- he is father of her child. Renner's part is so underwritten as to negligible. You can't call him a love-interest because all the passion arises outside the plot of the movie. In effect, he's just a sperm donor.) The aliens' agenda is that they will need the united peoples of the earth to assist them in 3000 years and so they have come to us today to unify the world in a great, peaceful alliance -- in effect, the people from the future have come to us to save ourselves from lethal conflict. This plot element occurs again recursively as well -- the overriding theme is that the future reaches back to correct the past and avert calamity just as Amy Adams calls the Chinese general with an enigmatic message that he whispered to her at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony several months after the aliens have peacefully departed -- it's the Chinese generals message from his future self to his past self (as conveyed by the heroine) that saves the world. The heroine knows that her beautiful daughter will sicken and die as a teenager, but she nevertheless conceives the girl knowing about her future suffering. This raises a philosophical question about our duties to the future and to our children -- it's a question that has divided the heroine from her spouse: they seem to be separated for much of the girl's childhood precisely because the father knows that the child is doomed to suffer and die. This quarrel, implicitly represented (very obliquely) as having ended the happy relationship between the physicist and our linguist heroine, shows that the man is unable to grasp the significance of the Heptapod grammar. If we accept the Heptapod grammar, then, the girl who we see dying in the hospital is always alive, happy and vibrant in some moment of time that will always be completely accessible to her mother. The child's father can't accept this proposition, it seems, and this ruins his marriage. (Of course, the problem with accepting the ever-presence of the daughter's happiness and vibrant life is that these jewels in time must co-exist with the girl's suffering and pain and the mother's grief that are also always present and tangible. The dilemma that the mother faces is the one that Nietzsche addressed when he argued that the highest duty of the Will to Power is to will the "eternal reoccurrence of the same" -- that is all our passion and joy together with all our suffering and despair.)