Anticipation: 4/5 Denis Villeneuve has been unstoppable since Incendies (2010). Sicario was one of the best films of 2015. Produced in part by Shawn Levy, the man behind hit Netflix series Stranger Things (2016), and shot by Bradford Young (Pawn Sacrifice, A Most Violent Year, Selma), Arrival seems to want to bring old school sci-fi back to the silver screen.
Final Verdict: 5/5 Arrival is a filmmaking masterpiece. See it on the biggest screen you can find.
When twelve unidentified flying objects mysteriously appear on Earth, the military recruits Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics scholar, to establish a means of communication. Can Louise connect with the beings before Earth’s civilization implodes?
Based on the short story entitled “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival showcases exactly what I love about film: an intriguing plot coupled with a visual narrative that transmits infiltrating themes to a hypnotized, amenable audience. The film’s idealistic approach to the science fiction genre is its strongest feature. In a time where most sci-fi has been ensconced in either the Super-hero genre or never-ending iterations of massive world destruction by iniquitous galactic invaders, Arrival may seem fallow at first glance. Drawing unnecessary comparisons to the cinematic masterpiece that is Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Arrival finds itself using the science-fiction genre as a vessel to discuss larger themes much like B-film classics of the 1950s. The themes in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) echo much of what Villeneuve sets out to accomplish with Arrival, namely to demonstrate that humanity’s greatest threat is itself.
There is a straightforward theme of communication throughout the film, the interactions between characters voicing opinions, trying to engage in cross-political discourse that is shaped by infusible cultural ideologies; but Villeneuve only submits the theme of communication as surface level inducement to embed Arrival’s unspoken theme of perception into the audience.
Anton Chekov’s “show, don’t tell” technique has slowly started to find its way back to the big screen, and, with Arrival, Villeneuve shows that he is one of its premier disciples. He conveys the theme of perception through the visual language he adopted for the film. Much attention is given Louise’s eyes and hands and Villeneuve recuperates that imagery through shot design and even in the structure of the visitors’ spaceships.
The first shot of the film has the camera travelling forward as it tilts down from the ceiling onto the large window in Louise’s house. The shot is meant to evoke two things: an upside down blinking eye and the vastness of Louise’s perspective. The first part of the shot, the slow tilt down, inverts the conventional manner in which an eyelid functions, normally blinking from top to bottom. Therefore, Villeneuve is subtly implying that global perception is skewed, literally turned 180 degrees on its head, and in order to progress towards a better understanding of each other, the characters will need to modify their perception on things such as communication. Starting the film in Louise’s home, with a camera travelling toward the large window that graces the entire back wall of the house just before settling on a wonderful view of a yard just off a lakeshore, transmits a necessity for a character such as Louise because of how she perceives situations.
Moreover, the ships are designed to evoke giant pupils, signaling that the beings inside may be the true perceptive force that humanity needs to evolve. The opening through which the humans proceed is analogous to an optic nerve, and the window or screen, separating the humans and the visitors, while also paralleling the window in Louise’s home, is the retina.
As the humans travel through the cavernous channel, Villeneuve shifts camera angles three times, going 180 degrees. The first shot is of the humans on the buggy, an establishing shot from inside the channel in the ship. While the humans jump and land on the wall, the camera has shifted 90 degrees. The humans then proceed to walk toward a light at the end of the long channel, and once they get to the end, the camera comes back to an establishing shot to show that the humans are in fact walking on the ceiling. To frame a shot reverse shot interaction between the humans and the visitors, Villeneuve must turn his camera around 180 degrees, and he does so by recuperating the opening shot of the film, a forward travelling shot, but this time with a camera tilt up to evoke the characteristic manner in which an eye blinks. As such, Villeneuve expresses that the discourse established in the visitors’ ship is where humanity will begin to perceive things in a novel way. The entire sequence acts like light travelling through an eye, even a camera lens, the image projected onto the retina is reversed until it is interpreted by the brain. Villeneuve is subtly using “eye” imagery to suggest the change in perception that Louise will have throughout the film.
Even the glass across which the humans and the visitors interact elicits the visitation process in prisons. If the phone receiver was not at the visitor and prisoner’s disposal, then communication would have to result to physical symbols, visual stimulus that can at once be helpful, but only if interpreted correctly. Could Villeneuve be suggesting that languages are prisons of perception? I believe that, yes, Villeneuve is imparting that what unites humanity is common experience, choices, emotions, and if only it could understand that experience is all the same regardless of the communication barrier, humanity would be all the better for it. The glass represents how people need to change what they see on the other side, before communicating about it.
The most optimistic aspect of the film has Louise prevent global conflict by learning and using the language the visitors have gifted to her, but that gift is also the bleakest aspect, because it comes at a cost. Sadly, what Villeneuve is implying is that no matter how desirable or necessary a change in perception is, for many the cost is too great. Unity and improvement do not benefit cultural ideology, because what marks civilization today, as painful as it is to say, isn’t how alike we are, it’s how different.
Louise represents the ideal vehicle, a prophet of sorts, that understands the concept of perception. When interacting with the visitors, she takes off her suit for there to be a differentiation between the concept of ‘human’ and ‘Louise’ the person. She is meant to be the character the audience will project themselves onto. She experiences events that are at once otherworldly and quintessentially human. She makes choices that are at once complex, yet seem like child’s play. She embodies the best of what humanity should aspire to.
As crazy as that may sound, Louise’s gift is one we all have, knowing full well that our mortality is inevitable. We think of our past, but we call them memories; we think of our futures and call them dreams; but while we are living those moments, we are in present time; our perception is what shapes the experience.
Arrival is one of the year’s best films. See it as soon as you can, see it more than once, and on the biggest possible screen.
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