By: Daniel Reynolds
The first third of Arthur C. Clarke‘s seminal science fiction novel “Childhood’s End” deals with the arrival of extraterrestrial beings in massive ships to our planet. The actual form of these aliens is not revealed until later, after the book has jumped ahead to a period when the presence of aliens on Earth has been normalized. Humanity needed time before being able to accept them. It’s an understandable response, given people’s typical emotional reaction to the new and unknown. And it’s a concept, one of a few, thrumming through the new film on a similar subject from director Denis Villeneuve, Arrival.
Introduced as a linguist of some renown, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is surprised one day, along with the rest of humanity, to discover giant sunflower seed-shaped spacecrafts, twelve in all, dotting the globe. The military apparatus — here represented primarily by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) — is at her door double-time with a request: help translate the alien language and figure out what they want. All at once, Louise, along with chipper astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is taken to rural Montana, one of the landing sites, to get to work communicating with these mysterious beings. But to see the marshalling of all these forces across the globe, including the presence of the CIA in Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), the faraway visage of China’s mighty General Shang (Tzi Ma), and other protective world powers, is to wonder: who are we supposed to be more afraid of — the alien visitors or the nervous people on the ground?
But the mission begins in earnest anyway. Supported by stunning cinematography by Bradford Young, and a score by Johann Johannsson with just the right notes of discord, Villeneuve immerses the audience, along with his actors, in the foreboding space between us… and them. It’s hard to overstate the monolithic power of some of these sequences — in particular, a breathtaking helicopter shot that reveals the scope in which the film is operating. Braced by a sharp script from Eric Heisserer, there’s an obvious tension here, as everyone involved determines how dangerous the aliens may or may not be amidst the cacophony of talking heads and panicked newscasts doing the same. As expected, stress grows worldwide at the mere presence of these stolid, semi-communicable beings; talks between the two parties — and the various power players of humanity — proves halting. Villeneuve’s command of this tension should be no surprise given his previous work, but his grip on the larger scale aspects of Arrival is remarkable for the inverse reason: his other films did not try for so much. What’s even more surprising, given Arrival‘s militaristic and suspenseful atmosphere (and the general tenor of Villeneuve’s edgy oeuvre), is how humane and heartfelt the film turns out to be. It spins on an axis of optimism, rather than easy violence.
For this humanity of Arrival to resonate, particularly in juxtaposition to all that hardware, some special effects, and yes, a spot of violence, the film relies on Adams. It’s her open, beatific face that invites us into the film, providing a beacon of intelligence and hope to latch onto. Arrival needs Adams to convince us there is more to the film than mere pyrotechnics. And this isn’t to undersell the roles of Renner and Whitaker, by the by. The former turns down his usual cynicism to play Ian as a hopeful problem-solver (even if he starts off with a bit of mansplaining). And the latter, even saddled with a New England accent (I think?), does clipped and exasperated military man as well as anyone. Grouped with Stuhlbarg, an unflashy pro’s pro, this quartet never lets you forget the foreground of the film, even as the suspense in the background mounts. The interplay between these actors — to say nothing of scenes involving little more than Adams and Renner staring into frosted glass at, well, creatures — ultimately carries the film. Science fiction in all forms could learn from this example.
The original title for Arrival was The Story of Your Life, taken directly from the Ted Chiang story on which the film is based. It’s a more fitting, if harder to market, title for the film. As with other recent well-executed science fiction films (like Gravity), there’s an almost pathological need to ground them in some sort of relatable human sentiment. Broadly, this is a good idea and an improvement over many sci-fi works that promise only empty spectacle. Here, Adams’ Louise is grappling with the death of a daughter (again, like Gravity) and Villeneuve, strong hand on the wheel, clips in scenes of these memories of motherhood to amp up the emotion. It’s perhaps a too easy way to engender sympathy — the mother-child dynamic being a (or the most?) powerful unifier of experience — but Arrival employs it to greater purpose, and with a bit of a twist. The film is the story of humans on Earth, filled with confusion and grievance, but it is also a specific tale about one small life and the choices made therein. In this, it communicates volumes.
The lone specific memory I have now of “Childhood’s End” is of the novel’s first protagonist as he seeks to reveal what the alien visitors look like. He’s told by one alien that it’ll be years before they can exit their ships and reveal themselves, a time after the protagonist’s eventual death. There’s an implicit tragedy here, this small man never getting to experience a great leap forward along with the rest of humanity. It can be hard to live in the current day while that particular promise sits literally right in front of you, out of reach. Arrival feels like that too, with the aliens knowing much, people grappling with their lack, and only frustrating barriers in between. But like the book, the film revels in these moments both big and small, and aims for something transcendent anyway: a woman with her child, Earth and the future of its people, and a journey we will all take together towards some kind of peace.