Science fiction is usually loud. Alien movies, even more so. But Arrival is quiet. Denis Villeneuve’s directorial breaks apart many of the tropes that science fiction often clings to. And in doing so, the film proves that there are still new ways to depict what we have seen time and again.
Arrival is a film that rests on the able and solemn shoulders of Amy Adams and her character, linguist Louise Banks. Her face betrays nothing and everything all at the same time, allowing her to remain impenetrable to those around us, but letting us in on the minute changes in her face and emotions.
The film reveals the story of her daughter to us in bits and pieces, leading us into the heartbreaking story of illness and death. It explains to us the heavy emotion she seems to be carrying, the weight of some kind of grief. Her chemistry with Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, is quiet again. There are no grand gestures here, no loud declarations. It is simple, and like the film, all of it feels just right.
The aliens certainly look grand and extraterrestrial enough, giving us a visual that is intimidating and also evokes curiosity. It manages to do to us what it does to the characters, leaving us intrigued and a little afraid. The spacecrafts that the aliens arrive in do a great job of being solid and impossible to ignore but also maintaining that aura of otherworldliness.
It is, however, in the language of the aliens that the film makes its triumph and its statement. Once again, it is quiet. The language they communicate in is visual and silent but haunting and beautiful. The wisps that the heptapod aliens let out create shapes that make up their language. And as we are drawn into the process of Louise trying to communicate with the aliens, we slowly understand the powerful route the film has chosen to go on by making their protagonist a linguist.
We are not trying to defeat the aliens. We are trying to understand them.
There is talk of a weapon, and instantly, the audience is made to think of science fiction movies where humans must destroy the aliens. It conjures up images of a standoff and a war, of rousing speeches and battle cries. But in Arrival, the weapon means something entirely different.
As they explain to Louise, in a quiet but haunting scene that unveils the movie to us, the weapon is their language. The language that Louise now understands. And the language opens time.
It is a startling discovery, a twist of Fight Club-esque proportions but revealed to us in a straightforward dialogue.
‘Who is this child?’
As Louise asks the question, we cannot help but gasp, finally understanding that Louise’s dead daughter hasn’t even been born yet. She doesn’t know her future, but now, the language has revealed it to her. And suddenly, the world is no longer the same for her. She has choices to make, tragedies she can avoid, and joy she can give up. Louise must do the impossible, travel into her life knowing the pain that is in store.
The aliens depart peacefully, telling Louise that the language is a gift because they will need her help 3000 years from now. And the fight we have been expecting, the war we are sure will happen, fizzles away. There is no hostility here, merely a peaceful passing of extraterrestrial life, an exchange of helpful information.
It leaves us with many questions. Questions of time and language, identity, and personal choices. It also makes us question the nature of sci-fi and the genre. By maintaining its quietness, a solemnity that the protagonist embodies, and by removing the element of violence, the film opens up infinite possibilities in how we treat science fiction.
Arrival is a 2016 Alien Science Fiction Thriller film directed by Denis Villeneuve. It stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in the lead roles.