By Zoe Buckton
After managing to swipe the last tickets to see ‘Arrival’ with the Imaginary Worlds module, I was stoked to see some sci-fi that wasn’t a reboot (and for free, too!). Having only seen 30-second trailers for the film, I’d assumed it would follow your average ‘defeat the evil aliens!’ storyline. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that ‘Arrival’ focused on communication and language, rather than big guns and all-out war.
The film opens with a voiceover by the protagonist, Dr Louise Bank’s (Amy Adams), in which she considers where her daughter’s story really begins. Usually I’m a bit adverse to voiceovers. But by the end of Arrival, it is clear that these are the glue that holds the cyclical narrative together. Louise’s stream of consciousness is the key to understanding a complex narrative, revolving around bootstrap paradoxes and communication barriers.
Louise’s character is certainly well developed. She is such a talented linguist that she is asked by the military to visit a spacecraft, or ‘shell’, within two days of its sudden appearance. Two days, it’s worth noting, in which she continues to attend university to give lectures to empty classrooms. Of course, she’d be damned if giant squids from space disrupted her teaching schedule.
It is a shame that Louise is the only female main character – in fact, one of the only female characters present. This causes the film to fail the Bechdel test, a flaw that is also shared by director Villeneuve’s 2015 film, Sicario. Indeed, one of the funniest moments in the film comes when Louise interrupts a trigger-happy soldier with the quip, ‘why do I have to talk to him?’
Ian Donnelly, on the other hand, proves that slapping some glasses on Jeremy Renner is enough to constitute a scientist. Whilst his friendship (and inevitable romantic arc) with Louise is great fun to watch, watching a physicist refuse to do any actual physics is rather concerning. Especially when his primary response to intense gravitational distortion is a mere stumble, without a sign of fascination.
The film shares many elements with the psychological horror ‘The Babadook’, increasingly dependent on dreams, sleep deprivation and hallucination to create a sense of unreliability. These elements are ultimately manifestations of Louise’s mindset adapting to the Heptapod language. A language which is complex, palindromic and resembles tea-rings so much it’s a shame the humans couldn’t introduce them to coasters.
The scenes of communication between the Heptapods, affectionately nicknamed Abbot and Costello, are arguably the best moments of the film. ‘Arrival’ spends majority of its run-time attempting to establish discussion with aliens behind misted glass, pushing back military action all the while. This feels particularly prevalent in our society, which is reluctant to embrace discussion with minorities and refugees, fogging up these issues with misleading media representations and fear of the unknown.
It is hard to deny that the film is gorgeous. Louise’s house is like the Cullen’s, all glass and view. The soundtrack, finely composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, mixes dread and child-like wonder through acapella acoustics and daunting basslines. The twelve spaceships hovering above the Earth’s surface resemble Airwick’s attempts to make air fresheners in keeping with minimalist decor. Or, if you prefer, very large eggs. There is barely any Michael Bay style explosion flaunting. Yet, where scenes depict changes in gravitational force, and the Heptapods themselves, the film shows a subtle ability to create intriguing visuals with little displays of incongruity.
‘Arrival’ was an intriguing film. I’ve avoided spoiling the ending in this review, because I really believe it’s worth watching for yourself. Although the film did leave me with a lot more questions than answers (which you can see here [spoilers]), perhaps this is the point. After all, isn’t it better to leave the cinema with big, existential questions than none at all?