The Proverbial Good SF Movie
I suspect that if you chose the right ten people and asked each of them to name a great SF film, then you might not just end up with a list of ten different films, but ten films so wildly different they might not even seem to belong to the same genre, let alone all be exemplars of it. I'm not suggesting that any or all of these people would actually be the kind of morons who think Transformers actually qualifies as a proper SF film, but simply that you can honestly believe that Primer is the kind of film that epitomises great science fiction, and not be wrong, while someone else can opt for a film like – I don't know – Gamera: Advent of Legion, and equally be taking a completely defensible stand.
I offer this to you not as some great new insight – the final paper edition of the Encyclopedia of SF had an entry on 'Definition of Science Fiction (Difficulty of)' – but because you should, of course, be wary when someone informs you that a new movie is 'the best SF movie in years' or something of that ilk. This sort of cachet is being widely applied to Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, and I would have to say that it is by no means entirely unjustified. But, you know.
Amy Adams plays Louise Sands, a top linguist and translator whose life, along with that of everyone else in the world, is thrown into turmoil by the appearance in the skies of the planet of twelve vast alien objects, their origins and intentions unknown. The alien presence remains inert and enigmatic, and Louise's special skill set and a pre-existing connection with the US Department of Defence results in her being recruited to a special project: she is flown to the site in Montana where one of the alien craft has (nearly) touched down, and put in charge of a team attempting to either decipher the aliens' own baffling language or teach them to communicate in English. Working a parallel project is top physics boffin Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – yes, it's a miracle, Jeremy Renner is in a film with a military element and he's not playing a special forces soldier – and the two forge a close working relationship. But their de facto boss (Forest Whitaker) is desperate for results – other world powers are working equally hard to make contact with the aliens in their own territory, and there will be obvious political and military advantages to the first nation that succeeds...
Arrival kicks off by playing with one of SF's killer ideas: they arrive. It's a mesmerising notion, not least because, well, you never know. They may really be coming. They may be here tomorrow, or next week, or... and if they do, well, no-one really knows what will happen next. You could probably do a whole movie just on the ramifications and details of how that event plays out.
However, the movie doesn't just settle for that, but goes on to tackle a whole range of other concepts, most of which are slightly stronger meat than you generally find in what is laughingly referred to as a Hollywood SF film: the neuro-linguistic hypothesis, the nature of our perception of time, free-will and determinism, and the nature of xeno-linguistics. I mean, I can ask the way to the bathroom in Klingon, but even so, I still thought this film wasn't afraid to be a bit thinky.
(It occurs to me that Ye Editor of the Post may be thinking ''Hmmm, this film sounds a bit like 1952's Red Planet Mars, because that was about the impact of First Contact and the difficulties of interspecies communication too' – well, let me assure anyone who's had the unforgettable experience of watching that movie, it really isn't that similar at all.)
Lest all this should make you blanch, I would advise you not to worry. At least, not much. All of the above is folded into a properly impressive and actually slightly spooky tale of vast, incomprehensible, quasi-Lovecraftian extraterrestrials, that often feels – and I don't wish to appear to be slighting Villeneuve – very much of a piece with Christopher Nolan's excursions into the SF field (and regular readers will know that is meant as the highest of compliments).
Of course, part and parcel of this is the way that the film gets rather tricksy and clever with the narrative structure of the story, because not all that's going on is quite as it first appears. The movie achieves one magnificent, quintessentially science-fictional coup about two thirds of the way through, when the true nature of what's been going on suddenly becomes clear, and the sense of conceptual breakthrough is dizzying. (However, this is very difficult to talk about in detail without ruining the plot, so I shall move on.)
In short, if you're starting to get the impression that this is a film with a notable lack of chase sequences and upbeat music cues on the soundtrack, you're absolutely right: while it certainly seems to be set in the same sort of narrative space as old-school charmers like Close Encounters (lots of people in rubber suits and numerous scenes of the army getting grumpy), it probably goes even further in terms of sheer thoughtfulness and… well, maturity's not quite the right word, but I'm struggling to find the right one that doesn't have an off-putting connotation to it. Arrival is a film with a lot of cello music and many moments of the lead character silently contemplating both the value of their life and the nature of existence, which I know is not some people's idea of a relaxing night's entertainment.
Nevertheless, it stays very watchable throughout, mainly due to confident, unflappable direction – Villeneuve doesn't allow himself to be rushed into wheeling on his aliens, and the slow gravity-warping journey into the heart of their craft acquires enormous tension as a result – and very intelligent performances from Adams, Renner, and Whitaker, who carry most of the movie between them. Like nearly all of the film, they are of the highest quality without seeming overly flashy or pleased with themselves – this is a really classy film, the kind of thing that might well win Oscars if it wasn't saddled with the usually-insuperable problem that it's obviously science fiction. (The Academy hates science fiction.)
Of course, one way in which Arrival is very much of a piece with numerous pieces of great SF from the past is that it is not exactly a barrel of laughs. It's not totally po-faced or lacking in warmth, but I thought that the main thrust of the story and particularly the conclusion was not an optimistic statement about the ineffable pleasures of living in the moment, but carried a rather bleaker message about what it means to be a conscious living entity. Yeah, like I said: not exactly your classic popcorn movie, this one.
Still, I'm on record as bewailing the near-disappearance of the classic intelligent SF movie, and so of course I'm not going to complain when something like Arrival comes along. Let's not worry about its place in history just yet, and settle for saying that this is an extremely thoughtful and inventive SF movie made for grown-ups who aren't afraid to use their brains, but at the same time aren't totally out of touch with their emotions. If that sounds like your sort of thing, this film is pretty much an unmissable treat.