Arrival (2016)

If Aliens do drop in, how do we respond? An exemplary look, through the science-fiction film, at what human race has become and the need for brotherhood and peace on our planet

9/22/20236 min read

English, 116 minutes, 2016

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stulbarg, Tzi Ma

Awards: Winner, Best Sound Editing, and 7 Nominations including Best Picture, Best Director & Best Cinematography, Academy Awards, 2017; 5 Nominations including Best Film, Best Actress and David Lean Award for Direction, BAFTA Awards, 2017; Nominated, Best Film, Golden Lion, Venice Film festival, 2016; Winner, Best Foreign Language Film, Cinema Brazil Grand Prize,2017; Winner (Amy Adams), Chairman’s Award, Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2017; The film won 69 Awards and 268 nominations in total.

While Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor, is starting to teach in her class a student asks her to switch on News. The news informs that there are 12 unidentified alien spaceships parked on various locations on earth and well, one of them, of course, is parked in USA, at a location in Montana. In a clichéd and typical development, Louise Banks is pulled out of her home in the wee hours of morning by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to understand why aliens are here on earth. In the chopper she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who is also sought by Colonel Weber for the same task.

On reaching location, a team comprising, Colonel, Louise Banks, Ian Donnelly and other military personnel try to establish contact with two of the aliens who have seven legs. So these people name them “heptapods”; Ian Donnelly names the two heptapods, who talk to these guys, as Abott and Costello. The aliens ‘talk’ or communicate by releasing black chemical which forms ‘circular rings’ with irregular notches at edges as symbols. As Louise struggles to analyze these symbols she has flashes about her daughter who has died at a young age due to an incurable disease. At their third meeting with aliens, Louise chucks Hazmat suit and touches glass which is a barrier between heptapods and humans. Aliens, in return, too touch the glass signifying approach of handshake or friendship. When Louis and Ian introduce themselves, the two aliens also release chemical to form two circular rings which could probably be their identities or names. And this starts attempts at communicating using various means and understanding language that they use.

After few days, US intercepts a communication in Mandarin and Louise deciphers that Chinese are trying to communicate with aliens using symbols from Mahajong, a competitive Chinese game which uses symbols too. Col Weber tells her that Chinese are mobilizing forces and Russia too is doing the same. At the subsequent meeting with aliens, Louise, who by now has gained some understanding about their ring-language asks them using rings the only pertinent question, “why are you here”? They answer, “offer weapon”. This spooks Col Weber and others as they think this could be their declaration or call for war! Louise differs and says that ‘weapon’ can also mean ‘tool’. Soon China and Russia go ‘off-grid’ and stops communicating with other countries. This panics other countries including US who also stops sharing information. It is reported by news channels that Chinese scientists have decoded the message as ‘use weapon’ (instead of ‘offer weapon’).

During next meeting, a group of soldiers plant time triggered explosives at the meeting site, inside the spaceship, without the knowledge of superiors and, Louise and Ian. Ian and Louise are only two people inside spaceship to clarify what exactly they mean by ‘offer weapon’. Aliens respond using different symbol whose meaning both are not able to understand. Aliens, it seems, are aware of the bomb and tap on glass to warn Louise but both do not understand. They, then release multiple symbols at one time and just before explosion, force them out of meeting site, rendering them unconscious and save their lives.

After Ian and Louise are awake, the space ship moves further up in the sky but doesn’t leave. General Shang (Tzi Ma), Chairman PLA, China gives an ultimatum to aliens saying they should leave in next 24 hours. Russia, Pakistan & Sudan follow Chinese initiative. As Americans are debating about their next course of action, which Louise fears would be offensive, she on her own goes to talk to aliens. They send a mini-ship to bring her to mother ship. She is taken to a different meeting place. At the meeting ‘Costello’ informs Louise that Abott was injured in the explosion. Louise apologizes and asks them about their purpose here? ‘Costello’ replies that they are here to help humanity because they will need earth’s help in next 3000 years. She asks him how does he know the future? She in turn starts seeing flashes of girl and asks ‘Costello’ about the girl. He replies that Louise is seeing the future which implies that she is seeing her future child. He also says, ”weapon opens time”. As she comes out of the ship, US forces have been ordered to evacuate the site. She understands what he meant by ‘weapon opens time’. She tries to explain to Col Weber that ‘weapon’ is actually their language and it is non- linear. So when Louise learns their language, it allows her to see in the future. She also sees that she has written a book about heptapods’ language in the future.

As she is waiting to be evacuated she has a premonition of an event celebrating unification, where General Shang tells her that he actually came to meet her because she is the reason that world is united today and she actually made him change his mind which is rare when she called him on his private number. Louise says that she doesn’t know his private number to which General Shang shows his private number and tells her that she told him what his wife told him while on her deathbed. Because of this premonition, Louise runs back to camp, finds a satellite phone belonging to CIA agent lying unattended and calls on the number shown to her. Meanwhile, signal engineers find out that someone is using sat-phone for calling China and triangulate the coordinates. She however manages to call General Shang and relay the message in Mandarin. As a result, China stands down and standoff is averted. The 12 ships depart peacefully. The experience of working together brings Ian and Louise together. They live together and have a girl child.

The film by any standard is a complex one. I had to see it twice to understand it fully. The screenplay is innovative and has a touch of class to it. There are typical hollywoodian dialogues at times, normally with Col Weber, but screenplay on a whole, by Eric Heisserer is much above average. The central idea of the movie is superb and the way it is played out using aliens is also commendable. Normally an alien movie deals with arms, offensive, firing ammunition, et al but this one starts with very basic- trying to understand their language and building up a bond of trust within the environment of mistrust and conflict. For this director Denis Villeneuve must be congratulated. He did win multiple awards and nominations for this excellent work of his. Amy Adams does complete justice to her role as a talented linguist and sad mother who has lost her child. Jeremy Renner too complements her superbly.

About the director, Denis Villeneuve

Born in October, 1967, in Quebec, Denis is a Canadian filmmaker who has directed several critically acclaimed films and has been regularly in the list of winners or nominees of Academy Awards, Golden Globe awards and BAFTA awards to name the big three annual awards. He attended school and college in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec and studied cinema at University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada.

He started making short films and made his first short film, ‘La course destination Monde’ in 1990. He made two more short films ‘REW FFWD’ (1994) and ‘Cosmos’ (1996) before embarking on his debut feature project. His first feature film, ‘August 32nd on Earth’, which he also wrote, was made in 1998. The film depicts desires of a model of conceiving a child to fill her ‘empty and meaningless’ life. The film was premiered in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ of the Cannes Film festival, 1998. His second film, ‘Maelstrom’, made in 2000 was better received and won eight ‘Jutra Awards’, (annual Canadian Film Awards). His next film ‘Polytechnique’, based on shooting incident at Ecole Polytechinque, University of Motreal in 1989 got premiered at Cannes Film festival, 2009 and won numerous Jutra Awards and Genie Awards (Canadian Screen Awards).

Present film ‘Arrival’ is Denis’s eighth feature film, which released to the world in 2016 and was critically acclaimed. The film also did good business at box office after it garnered eight nominations at The Academy Awards or Oscars. So, Denis is one of the rare directors who is seen regularly at film festivals, collecting Awards, and whose films does good business at the box office also.