In Arrival, a new humanistic sci fi film from future Blade Runner director Denis Villeneuve, Amy Adams plays a woman who sees life on a fractured timeline, like a Tarantino movie where the beginning is the end and the end is the start.
She plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the U.S. Military to communicate with giant alien heptapods—think Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons— who have landed in Montana and eleven other sites worldwide. Are the ETs scientists, tourists or warriors?
“Most science fiction movies are about a display of technology or weaponry,” says Villeneuve, “and Arrival is not that at all. It is an intimate story about a linguist who is confronted by a huge challenge. In a way Arrival has some elements of a sci fi movie but it is closer to a strange cultural exchange.”
War of the Worlds this is not. Based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, this is an alien invasion film with more in common with the heady sci fi of Andrei Tarkovsky and the crowd-pleasing emotionalism of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s more about the importance of communication—“Language is the first weapon drawn in conflict.”—than alien technology or Independence Day style Martian marauding.
The story is an exploration of the unknown, exactly the thing that sparked Villeneuve’s interest in the script and to the genre in general.
“The vertigo that is created by the unknown,” he says, “that is what attracted me to sci fi.”
The director, who is currently putting the finishing touches on Blade Runner 2049 starring Ryan Gosling, says he was a bit of a Walter Mitty type while growing up in Quebec.
“I was really a dreamer and was surrounded by science fiction coming out of Europe. There is a moment I remember vividly. At a very young age one of my aunts came home one night and she had brought two or three big cardboard boxes filled with magazines. Those magazines were all about sci fi. Those boxes changed my life because the amount of the poetry and creativity among the guys that were drawing those comic strips. They were very strong storytellers. They were all like mad scientists playing with our brains. They really influenced me big time as a youngster and then came the wave of sci fi movies coming out of the US that were so strong at the end of the seventies.”
He cites a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece as a potent example of the kind of sci fi that lit his imagination on fire.
“The biggest impact was 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he says. “The first time I saw it was on television. I remember vividly the vertigo that movie created. Even though I saw it on TV I still think it is one of the most significant cinematic experiences I have had.”
In Arrival Villeneuve takes a page from Kubrick’s playbook and by the time the end credits roll he presents the audience with a climax that is both spacey and grounded.
“It is a privilege when you can take a camera and ask people to sit for two hours in a theatre,” says Villeneuve. “It is nice if you take that privilege to explore something out of our reality, to bring some poetry to it.”