First Contact between humanity and an extraterrestrial species has been anticipated and imagined in popular culture for a long time. Sometimes the speculative aliens offer peace and knowledge, like the Vulcans who visit nuclear-war-ravaged earth in Star Trek (portrayed in a film called, suitably enough, First Contact), and sometimes they arrive to blow up the White House to audience applause, like the unnamed aliens in Independence Day. And sometimes they come claiming to be the former but are actually the latter, like in the 1980s television classic “V“. Science fiction writers have imagined First Contact so many times, in fact, that virtually every purportedly fresh take is really, like a V alien unmasked to reveal the lizard beneath, just a pastiche of tired ideas. I feared Arrival would be such a creature. The trailer, replete with so many First Contact tropes, from the hazmat suits of ET to the Blackhawk helicopters of Independence Day, didn’t help. It turns out that Arrival‘s director, Denis Villeneuve, had similar worries going into the project: in conversations with The Verge, he noted the difficulty of creating original science fiction among so many cliches and tropes. So, how did he and creative team behind Arrival, do?
The film is based on a short story by Ted Chiang called “The Story of Your Life”. It’s a compact, efficient “hard”* science fiction story that explores big concepts like language, perception and nonlinear time. The Heptapods in the short story offer neither war nor peace; Chiang’s story challenges us to imagine an alien race so different that, even if we could learn enough of their language to talk, we could never really communicate, let alone understand. And mirroring that grand idea is the story with a more personal question: what if you could see your whole life in a way that made the eventual losses achingly specific and totally inevtiable? Would you be able to embrace the moments of your life even if you knew with utter certainty the moment, and circumstance, of their unraveling?
Reading “The Story of Your Life” before seeing the film added a new note of trepidation. Even if the creative team could fleetly navigate the minefield of First Contact tropes, could they preserve the beautiful ambiguity of Chiang’s story? I myself fell into a trope, fretting over how a beloved piece of literature would fare in the transition to the filmic universe. Villenueve, again, echoed similar concerns about Chiang’s “string of beautiful ideas about language and the struggle of a women with her mourning process.” He and scriptwriter Eric Heisserer spent months sculpting a dramatic structure for a film that attempts to structure a character-driven plot more suited to film around the ideas and emotions of the original story. By all reports, it was not an easy process.
Luckily for the audience, the film’s creative team seems to have shared the worries of sci-fi fans like myself. They manage to turn the cliches of First Contact into a strength; they know we have all seen First Contact happen scores of times, and so instead of making believe we haven’t (kind of like how characters in zombie movies seldem appear to ever have seen a zombie movie and yet they seem to occupy our world), they acknowledge the familiar tropes and improvise with them, playfully subverting both genre norms and audience expectations.
Many science fiction films devote huge budgets to world-building, creating a place that feels real and allows us to experience what we can only imagine. Unfortunately, for too many of those films the initial act of world-building is only a brief prelude to their primary concern, which is world-destroying. Certainly the most overused word in science fiction film is “boom”. Arrival, though its trailer hints at otherwise (playing with expectations again), is refreshingly short on explosions. And when violence does occur, the director smartly and boldly choses to let much of it procede off-screen. Villenueve takes the high ground and refuses to essentialize the violence, and instead constructs a brilliant and heartbreaking sequence, as the ambiguity of First Contact carried over from the short story finally breaks the patience and goodwill of some of the human hosts on a fractured, tense world.
The narrative structure of Arrival is deceptive, and the audience only starts to understand this structure about two thirds of the way through. This is not a cheap trick; indeed our experience is synced with that of the film’s main character, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams). We experience things when she does, we understand them when she does. The audience’s relationship to the film’s heroine is immediate, and Amy Adams deftly carries this weight with intelligence and grace. Her performance is tuned to that of the project overall, understated, calm, thoughtful and heartfelt. Truly hers was one of the best performances of the year.
In Arrival, inanimate objects become characters as well. The orographic clouds rolling off the mountaintops into the valley where the Heptapod ship hovers makes for one of the most stunning sequences I have ever seen in film. The use of clouds to conceal, and reveal, the ship and the landscape below mirrors the Heptapods’ smoke-writing, and ultimately the filmmakers’ use of narrative structure to subtly reveal their story. The film’s cinematographer, Bradford Young, has been justifiably lauded for his lighting, color and compositition, and an essential part of Arrival’s success as a visual narrative is his.
That the film’s denouement departs from the short story by making a choice between interpreting the titular first contact as a Vulcan peace greeting or an exploding White House is ultimately another ruse; the real story is in the mind of the main character, Amy Adam’s linguist, the single person most touched by the meeting with a radically different extraterrestrial culture. And here, the film and the story end on the same note. We may know the future is full of loss, and yet we embrace it with hope, and a determination to enjoy every moment. Arrival uses the fantastic to help us recognize a strength we already have within us.