What would happen if human beings knew about their own future? This is the existential question Denis Villeneuve tries to answer through Arrival, his eighth feature film after Sicario (2015) and Enemy (2013). The answer to this question is hidden and revealed in the story of a woman and her close encounter of the Fifth kind. Louise is a linguistics professor who lost her 12-year-old daughter to an incurable illness. When giant alien spaceships land in twelve locations around the world, the American military hires her to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. As nations sway on the brink of a global war, she discovers that she understands the alien language but, at the same time, she discovers something new about her own life.
Stories of your life
Arrival is not an original movie. In fact, it is the adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story called Stories of Your Life. And as in any non-original screenplay, there are some similarities and differences from the original literary work. The themes (determinism, incommunicability, loss and love) and the main character (Louise) are the same, as well as the point of view. Just like in the short story, Denis Villeneuve narrates the events from the perspective of Louise using voice-over. On the other hand, the mise en scène is more ambitious in the movie. If in the work of Ted Chiang, the story takes place in a tent, in front of a semicircular three-meter mirror, so then in Arrival alien spaceships are four hundred and fifty meter-high shells suspended in the air.
Two noteworthy storytelling techniques
Denis Villeneuve uses two noteworthy storytelling techniques to involve the viewers: the approach and the revelation. Louise slowly moves close to the aliens, overcoming increasingly complex obstacles. She draws near to them and immediately walks away. It goes on, until she is close enough to find out a truth more complex than she expected. In other words, a revelation about the future.
Arrival brings to mind many other existential and intimate science fiction movies. One above all, Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alien spacecraft is like the dark monolith, a shell that hides human knowledge.