Many of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have been about life beyond the stars and since the first space expeditions of the mid-twentieth century popular culture has continually celebrated ideas of space travel, whether larking through time and space with Dr Who or fighting the forces of good and evil in Star Wars. Yet while we may think that these are all about our desire to encounter alien life, space films are actually all about humanity. Wondering what’s out there focuses our fears of loneliness and isolation while imagined encounters with other beings helps to clarify what it means to be human.
Nowhere is this more true than the latest space blockbuster, Arrival, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival and considers how the use of language and science contributes to our way of interpreting the world. Now a film about linguistics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Arrival neatly integrates existential chat about the meaning and expression of life with the very human story of two academics bringing a restraining hand to the world’s trigger-happy military leaders.
In Denis Villeneuve’s film 12 mysterious spaceships arrive one day at seemingly random locations across the world. These tall cylindrical objects imply a mass alien invasion and a threat to the population of the world’s largest countries. Each contains two enormous squid-like aliens who have a message for the earth, yet, in order to understand their demands, scientists in each country must learn to interpret their language, and for that America, at least, calls on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a leading academic linguist who must work with mathematician Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to develop a relationship with their two invaders in order to decode their purpose and save the world.
The most notable thing about Arrival is seeing not just a female lead, who takes precedence over the numerous male military figures and experts, but one who is both intelligent and entirely credible – nicely written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story. Adams plays Louise as a normal woman, albeit one who appears to be suffering from some kind of painful memory intrusion, who is excellent at her job, authoritative in her advice, increasingly brave and always appropriately dressed for her life. Thankfully, as is the wont of many of these kinds of film, we don’t see her tottering around in tight skirts and high heels, but she looks and feels the part in comfortable combat trousers and checked shirts, minimal make-up and tied back hair – in short a breath of much needed air in the presentation of women in action films.
Louise is there and respected entirely for the professional experience she brings to the team and when her theories prove sound again and again, the surrounding men, for the most part, accept her superior knowledge and do as she asks. Now none of this is shoe-horned in, and it’s not a film specifically designed to present a female lead in this light – the movie is telling a reasonably straight-forward story of an alien landing and the subsequent interaction – but in plethora of Hollywood films, Louise stands out as one of the very few realistic and thoughtfully created characters whose gender is entirely irrelevant to her ability to do her job as well as anyone else in the room.
And all of this is in no small way down to Adams’s interpretation of the character, and, given she largely carries the film, brings a sensitivity to the role that adds considerably to the audience’s engagement. We see things from her perspective so from the early confusion created at the university to the slow process of gaining the alien’s trust and gently probing their understanding and use of language, we experience her wonder, frustration and sense of achievement as time passes.
By contrast Jeremy Renner has very little to do as the military mathematician side-kick and his character is rather less well fleshed out. Naturally he bumbles around at first emitting masculine certainty about the importance of science but as time and experience with the aliens begins to prove, Banks’s way is the right one, Donnelly softens considerably towards her. Renner does what he does well and as the relationship between the leads becomes increasingly involved you begin to root for their success, but other than a providing a contrast to Louise’s easier style, the role is a reasonably thankless one.
Similarly Forest Whitaker and the rest of the military crowd are expectedly bolshie and self-important. The contrast between the force of military might and insistence that the aliens must only have dastardly intent, with Louise’s softly-softly approach is well drawn, but as ever in these films the homogeneity of military force feels as faceless and instant as usual. This is equally played out across the world as the affected nations initially share data via video conference but soon begin to fracture as their own scientists make discoveries that scare them into potentially dangerous action. How this evolves is one of the key messages of the film and again reiterates the central importance of Louise’s approach in resolving the confusion presented by the random appearance of alien craft.
Villeneuve’s direction is most valuable and subtle in the encounters between the humans and the aliens, which takes place within their ship, separated (or protected) by an impenetrable barrier that keeps them for doing each other harm. These become surprisingly affecting moments as Louise and Ian’s initial fear of the alien form becomes a more scientific fascination with unearthing the root of their language and developing an unexpected bond with them.
Arguably they cut too frequently and too sharply between these interactions and life back at base, so the prolonged contact with the visitors is sacrificed to a need to show the rapid passing of time, but Marc Reichel’s special effects are incredibly atmospheric. The physical shape of the aliens in their form of part-squid part-tree-trunk with long spindly roots will invariably disappoint some but it’s a good decision to cloud them in a smoky fog which should allow the special effects to last longer without looking too dated, while adding to the sense of mystery that propels this film.
Far from being a film about the appearance of aliens, Arrival is more about the human approach to solving a particularly important and complex riddle. Part of that is about science and knowledge, painstakingly constructing all the information you need to make an informed decision while constantly rethinking your approach. Yet what this film really wants to emphasise is the importance of working together and sharing more unusual ideas in order to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems. And whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, poverty, financial crises or any other world-level problem, Arrival is a space film that’s full of heart about the world we know.
Arrival received its European premiere at the London Film Festival. It opens in the US and the UK on 10 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1