I’m sure I’m not the only one to have picked up on this recent trend in Science Fiction cinema for personal stories. The big, original, high concept sci-fi movies that we tend to remember at the end of every year seem to be complicated character studies of complicated people rather than the space opera/alien invasion stories of yester-century. Not that the Space Opera has in any way diminished in popularity, though. Guardians of the Galaxy and The Force Awakens have shown that there’s still a fertile market for that sort of stuff. But, the success of both those movies rides on the hyperactively franchise-based nature of American blockbusters today. I can’t really seem to remember any original regular science fiction that did well over the past few years. Shyamalan’s After Earth was a complete travesty. Jupiter Ascending was kinda meh, to be honest. And even from the more successful franchise side of things, the big critical hits seem to be Rogue One and Prometheus which are both a lot more personal in scope than either of their predecessors.
But the movies that have been at the vanguard of this new personal trend in Science Fiction cinema have mostly been original, independent works. There’s Ex Machina and the very passionate Interstellar (yeah, I’m a fan) and The Martian. And then there’s Arrival.
The moment I got what Arrival was about, the Embassytown comparison was the first thing to spring to my mind. But, that wasn’t particularly fair. Both are stories about cognition that is entirely alien from ours. Both are stories about language and linguistics. But the similarities end there.
Arrival follows Louise Banks (with a strangely melancholic performance by the usually peppy Amy Adams), a linguist who is tasked with learning to communicate with aliens who have parked their spaceships on several almost random locations on the earth. These creatures are utterly alien from us. They are vast and lumbering things with eight, spidery appendages. We call them heptapods. Their language is entirely entirely written and makes use of a complicated set of symbols.
The cinematography and music are very reminiscent of two recent movies I’ve already mentioned: Ex Machina and Interstellar. Villeneuve goes for a mostly naturalistic approach to the environment and we’re choked with imagery of rolling hills, fields, lakes and the threat of rain from the word go. The score is orchestral, sparse and burgeoning, building up along with the film into a towering crescendo.
And both of these serve as a contrasting backdrop in front of which Villeneuve places his main character. Louise is cold and cut-off for most of the movie. She is based on a trope we don’t really see often in fiction, let alone science fiction. She is a character waiting for instructions on how to live. And towards the end of the movie, she gets them.
Jeremy Renner is surprisingly charming and Forest Whitaker is very Forest Whitaker.
If you’re into cerebral science fiction and you like complex character studies, I’d definitely give this one a go.