Arrival Programme Note


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You don’t actually see the arrival in Arrival. This is a film about the sudden appearance of unidentified alien crafts in twelve different points around the globe, yet the moment they appear plays out offscreen. Instead, the audience watches Amy Adams and her near-empty linguistics class as they react to footage of the event on the news. From the very start of the film it becomes clear – this isn’t about the aliens as much as it is about the humans involved with them.

Cinema has long had an uneasy relationship with aliens arriving on earth. Early sci-fi cinema, typified by Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, was about exploration, discovery and realising strange new worlds in the exciting nascent medium of celluloid. Five years before Méliès’ groundbreaking film, however, the groundwork was laid for fear of outsiders in H.G. Wells’ novella War of the Worlds. Wells wasn’t concerned with travelling to other planets – he was wondering what would happen if other planets visited us.

The impact of Wells’ story has arguably shaped the alien arrival narrative ever since. This archetypal tale, reframing a popular invasion genre where the threat was usually neighbouring nations, casts aliens as an opposing force, seeking to kill and destroy. Admittedly, it’s not really a war of the worlds, as his aliens only seem preoccupied with blowing up Surrey, but the idea that they were out to get us has remained a powerful image in pop culture.

Spielberg’s flawed but thrilling reinvention of the Wells novel is just one of many films where aliens turn up on our planet, bent on spectacular destruction or total occupation. Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Edge of Tomorrow are just the tip of the alien invasion iceberg, which goes deep into genre cinema. Filmmakers are obsessed with working out how humans would react if they were ever faced with the imminent threat of a totally alien species arriving on their doorstep. The assumption is usually panic and fire back – only a few films, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still or E.T. posit that such visitations could actually be positive.

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What makes Arrival a remarkable piece of cinema is the restraint with which it examines the reaction to the appearance of the spacecraft. Many of the tropes associated with the genre are present and correct: there are rooms full of government agents talking and typing furiously into computer monitors and there are military types whose natural inclination is to overreact and fight back with force.

This isn’t Independence Day, however, and much of ###i is concerned with the minutiae of the governmental response. The initial reaction is not violence, but patience. Director Denis Villeneuve described it as “a film more about bridges than walls.”###a href="#_ftn1" name="_ftnref1" title="">[1] It’s not hard to parse the subtext of a film where the key to dealing with outsiders is to try and find mutual ground and to establish a dialogue. It moves at a slow speed, chronicling the step-by-step processes, while the people hired by the government are linguists and theoretical physicists – the first step is understanding.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, Arrival is an immediately different prospect to alien invasion films of the past. In a world where sci-fi tends to be hyper-kinetic and edited to oblivion, Arrival presents a sense of stillness. The curved black spaceships, looking like a cross between the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a segment of a chocolate orange, hang motionless in the air and the scientists are invited to enter.

The gradual reveal of the aliens is the “dramatic heart and soul of the picture – a drama of elegantly hushed and heightened anticipation.”[2] It’s a deliberate choice to keep things shrouded in a literal fog for much of the film, keeping the full details of the situation hidden from the viewer, drip-feeding the information. Most alien invasion films aren’t so preoccupied with the ‘why’ of the tale, moving straight to the ‘how’ of survival. Yet Arrival is all about the ‘why’, circling around the question and examining it from every angle. It teases the viewer with the possibility that, for once, these extra-terrestrial visitors could be here to help.

In ###i the aliens and ensuing reaction to their presence form a backdrop to the human narrative at the centre of it all. We see news reports and frantic cross-cultural debates that reference an international crisis, but that’s an almost incidental texture to the tale of Louise Banks, Amy Adams’ linguist. In the words of Villeneuve, this is a “science fiction film that says something about reality.” [3] We watch as she moves from bewildered outsider dragged into a dizzying world of aliens and hazmat suits to becoming the main actor in the human-alien relationship. All the while, she is trying to process a family trauma that is laid out in a moving prologue.

This backstory is not an incidental extra to the dizzying sci-fi story, it is the raison d’etre of the film. You can see it in the craft of the film, which is structured and styled around the experiences of Louise. Bradford Young’s gorgeous cinematography excels when pausing to rest on the face of Adams, who conveys a tumultuous inner life with minute gestures. Young also creates an intense sensory experience, creating indelible images and lingering on moments of touch and sound that drag you into Louise’s world. Make no mistake, for all the international politics and razor-sharp subtext, this is her story through and through.

By framing a world-changing story within the context of an intensely, intimately human story, it brings the viewer into the film. Although you’ve seen films about aliens arriving on earth before, Arrival looks with fresh eyes at a familiar premise and asks, once more, what would you do?

Nathanael Smith, freelance copywriter, editor and film critic

November 2016

[1] http://deadline.com/2016/09/arrival-movie-denis-villeneuve-interview-reactions-blade-runner-sequel-venice-film-festival-2016-1201811771/

[2] http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/arrival-review-venice-film-festival-amy-adams-1201849485/

[3] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-arrival-denis-villeneuve-amy-adams-premiere-release-20160914-snap-story.html


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