I had tears in my eyes after I had finished watching the film.
The beauty of Denis Villeneuve’s first foray into science fiction lies in the fact that it makes you think it’s about one thing and then in the final minutes changes your perspective completely. The credit of this story goes to author Ted Chiang, upon whose short story The Story of Your Life the film was based. But the credit for brilliantly executing it goes to Villeneuve.
The man has by now established himself as the master of making films of the slow-burn, tension-building variety that also raises some pertinent and thought-provoking questions. His controlled and understated direction is aided by the skillful editing of Joe Walker, Bradford Young’s spellbinding camera work and the atmospheric background score of Jóhann Jóhannsson.
The basic premise is similar to that of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (ignore the Keanu Reeves remake). When alien spaceships shaped like gigantic pebbles appear in different locations around the globe, a linguistic expert Louise (an impressive Amy Adams) is asked by the military to assist them in making contact with the extra-terrestrials and find out why they are here.
Louise has recently lost her teenage daughter to a rare form of cancer. Villeneuve opens the film with a brief and effectively emotional montage of her alternatively happy and sad moments with her daughter – right from her childhood to her final days. Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnell, a theoretical physicist who joins her team to help her decipher their language, which resembles large, animated and spherical-shaped Rorschach inkblots on a giant translucent screen.
It is only halfway through we realize that the film is much more than a “first contact” story. It is actually a time-travel film that cleverly plays around with the predestination paradox. Moments from the past, present, and future blend in seamlessly at key moments. The film is like the lovechild of Christopher Nolan and Terence Malick. It’s a poignant meditation on life, love, memory and loss.
Villeneuve accomplishes what Christopher Nolan tried to do two years ago with Interstellar, but with a more nuanced approach. Some are going to argue that both stories are different but aren’t both films similar in terms of the themes and soul?
A lot of people found the ending complicated or ‘bleh’. It is quite simple, actually. The big question that Louise asks Ian – “Would you change anything in your life if you were given a chance to relive it all over again?” – is at the very core of the film. This is something that we have all asked ourselves at one point or the other.
Louise makes the choice to experience the same thing again despite knowing that she will experience the exact same grief and loss that she had experienced before with Ian and their daughter. But it is those brief moments of love and togetherness with them that she wishes to experiences once again. No matter how much we wish for an alternate reality, we are only meant to experience one life with one particular outcome.
It doesn’t really matter which event came first – be it the past or the future. What matters is the emotion that lies at the heart of all of it. Our destination is the same regardless of the number of all our life’s achievements. Arrival reminded me once again why I’m a huge Denis Villeneuve fan. I can’t wait to see what magic he is going to conjure up in Blade Runner 2049.