Visitor or invader? That’s the central question of every aliens-on-earth drama. But one of this year’s standout films takes that basic narrative in a new direction.
Communication drives the story of Arrival. Based on writer Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, the Denis Villeneuve film portrays Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), an American linguist who is recruited by the military to establish communication with an alien race that has landed on Earth. Her mission: to decipher the alien language before other nations hurtle into an interplanetary war.
It’s hard to think of too many movies where linguists rather than action heroes get to save humanity. Like Chiang’s novella, the script by Eric Heisserer (with uncredited rewrites by Villeneuve) effectively conveys the complex and difficult process of trying to decipher a new language from scratch. The scene in which Louise breaks down the number of steps needed to explain the question ‘What is your purpose on Earth?’ to the aliens encapsulates the film’s core conflict.
It’s easy to see why Villeneuve says that Arrival belongs somewhere between a commercial and an auteur film. In the footsteps of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Interstellar, Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create a look that they dub ‘dirty sci-fi’, eschewing sleek futurism and instead anchoring the film as closely to the real world as possible. Villeneuve builds tension with methodical pacing and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s experimental score.
The brilliance of Arrival lies in its ability to engage both the brain and the heart. Following the structure of the novella, the film jumps between scenes of Louise and her daughter and the main story. The connection between the two plot strands, when finally revealed, delivers an emotional punch. Unlike the brain teaser twists of, say, M Night Shyamalan’s films, Arrival’s big reveal gives the story extra emotional depth that elevates it from being just another alien invasion story. The film plays even better on second viewing, when the viewer has a chance to step back and retrace how the puzzle was put together.
This month we’re also celebrating the best films from 2016 as well as award winners from previous years. In addition to Arrival, we have La La Land – which clinched a record seven Golden Globe awards this year – and Manchester by the Sea. Past Oscar winners onboard include 12 Years a Slave, Good Will Hunting and Black Swan.
Simon Cuthbert is Cathay Pacific’s product manager – communications and entertainment content.