Gattaca (1997)

For a certain type of science fiction story, there are few higher honors than to be characterized by the much-coveted phrase: ‘thinking person’s sci-fi’. In a perfect world, such a descriptor would be superfluous; you’d think that science fiction, by its very nature, would give us something to think about every time we venture into it. And, technically, I suppose it does, but as with any well-defined genre, in reality there’s quite a chasm between the genre’s full potential and most of what the entertainment industry offers up. So it has always been with science fiction, and especially in the past few decades, as superhero and fantasy movies have come to dominate the box office (to the point of providing the lion’s share of yearly revenue for the studios who make them). Most sci-fi movies these days seem to fall into two broad categories. On the one hand, we have the ‘serious’ ones for the thinking audience: small and narrowly focused, engaging us on lower budgets either by venturing into wild and weird territory, or by creating imagined worlds that look mostly like our own, with only a few select suspensions of disbelief. And on the other hand, we have the massive blockbusters, using the now-basically-unlimited capabilities of special effects to entertain us largely through extraordinary visuals: the physics-defying action set pieces and the vividly rendered fantasy worlds. There are exceptions (Ex Machina, The Martian, pretty much everything Christopher Nolan does), but overall, the combination of interesting ideas, compelling visuals, and excellent filmmaking is so rare in sci-fi that it feels like a real gift from above when it does come about. And there are few better examples of this than Gattaca, a wonderfully crafted, visually exquisite dystopian parable whose concerns about genetic engineering are just as thought-provoking today as they were when it came out in 1997—so much so that a 2011 poll of NASA scientists rated it the best sci-fi movie of all time.[i]

Gattaca isn’t perfect (no movie is) but it’s still something of a cinematic miracle—and an interesting one, both on its own terms and in the ways it stands out from its genre counterparts. It’s always notable when a speculative sci-fi movie still feels relevant and insightful multiple decades after its release, and that’s certainly the case here. Gattaca’s vision of a world based on genetic discrimination arose out of events and realities specific to its time: the use of genetically modified crops was exploding; the Human Genome Project was humming along and nearing completion; and Dolly, the first successfully cloned mammal, had just been born. But the issues the movie raises have only grown thornier in the intervening years, especially recently. With the new CRISPR gene-editing technology potentially enabling exactly this sort of selective conception, and with growing awareness of the depth of humanity’s discriminatory instincts and of its commitment to the increasingly dubious social ideology of meritocracy, some version of the (smartly unspecified) ‘not too distant future’ portrayed in the movie seems both closer and more dangerous than ever.

The movie was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, a thoughtful Kiwi filmmaker who left New Zealand at age twenty-one and paid his dues in London, directing TV commercials for over a decade before he finally got the chance to make a proper movie. Gattaca was that first feature, and it’s kind of miraculous that Niccol was ever allowed to make another; like so many eventual classics, the movie was popular with critics but a pretty resounding failure at the box office. I’ve noticed that this has become a standard feature of these articles: the part where I explore, in perhaps unnecessary detail, how this month’s great director got to this point, how we might define their artistic sensibilities, and how our given movie relates to the rest of their estimable body of work. We’re still doing that, obviously, but it’s at least a bit different this month. Niccol’s story is a somewhat rarer one in the film industry, and one that I actually find much more interesting: the filmmaker who makes an inspired first (or early) feature, but whose subsequent work never quite rises to the same level. Niccol’s interest in science fiction and the human ramifications of new technology has continued, and he’s still had a successful career, working slowly but steadily over the past twenty-odd years. Some of his movies have been so-so (S1m0ne, 2002), some bad yet commercially successful (In Time, 2011), and some quite good (Lord of War, 2005 and Good Kill, 2014)—but so far, he’s never quite managed to equal the peculiar magic that he worked with Gattaca, when he was still in his early thirties. (Interestingly, his best work besides Gattaca was around the same time, on a movie he wrote but did not direct: the 1998 dramedy classic The Truman Show.)

The reasons for Niccol’s uneven filmography are perhaps unknowable, but we can certainly shed some light on why Gattaca, in particular, works so well. I mentioned before that it’s not a perfect movie because no such movie exists—and that’s true, but in this case there are specific weaknesses that even an ardent admirer like myself can identify. Especially in the first act, the movie is a bit too heavy on exposition, delivered via voice-over narration that starts to become excessive. There are a few holes in the plot and world-building that can rankle if you can’t suspend disbelief. And while the writing and acting are strong overall, there are clunky phrases that, combined with the rarefied, highly mannered setting in which the story takes place, lead to moments of awkwardness in the performances. These are all minor issues, none of which would come close to spoiling the movie for me in any case. But Gattaca is one of those happy instances in which such minor flaws are almost completely overshadowed by other aspects of the movie that are not just great, but genuinely unusual and interesting.

The most obvious of these strengths would have to be the movie’s wonderfully distinctive aesthetic. In its own unique way, this is one of the most visually stunning sci-fi movies I’ve seen, which is remarkable when you consider how few stunts and special effects are involved. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography, for example, is a gorgeously interesting exercise in contradiction. On the one hand, it’s very reserved, almost stately, working mostly with carefully framed static shots; the camera moves, when they do occur, tend to be discreet and intuitive, rarely drawing attention to themselves. The few instances of jittery, handheld camerawork are reserved for moments of high tension, and specifically those involving real physical danger, like a scuffle and chase through a back alley, or the nerve-racking swimming competitions between our protagonist, Vincent, and his brother Anton. Obstacles that are conquered via quick wits and composure, like an endurance test at Gattaca or a nail-biting traffic stop, are depicted with the usual precision and restraint. But on the other hand, ‘restrained’ is not necessarily how you’d describe the cinematography as a whole, because it doesn’t account for Idziak’s dazzling use of color. He infuses all those stately images with strikingly rich color schemes: warm yellows for the sleek, sun-drenched living areas and outdoor spaces; cool blues and greens for clinical settings, like the Gattaca testing facilities and the home laboratory where Vincent and Eugene prepare the tools of their deception; and for the grander areas of Gattaca and the ritzy public establishments, a lavish medley of silver, gold, and deep brown, evoking the mixture of cutting-edge modernity and old-school elegance that defines this world. The cinematography captures the essential, contradictory nature of this imagined future and the lives of those who inhabit it: beautiful and luxurious, representing new heights of human sophistication, yet so aggressively refined and tightly regimented that it becomes impersonal and oppressive—sometimes even surreal.

And yet Gattaca is just as much (if not more so) a triumph of another key aspect of visual filmmaking: the purview of a small army of people who are essential to any movie, but whose names are hardly ever known outside the film world. Case in point: I’ve barely mentioned the art department in previous articles. But you can’t discuss what makes Gattaca great without noting the work of production designer Jan Roelfs and his many lieutenants: art director Sarah Knowles, set decorator Nancy Nye, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and the dozens of stylists, concept artists, carpenters, painters, and laborers of all kinds who (often literally) craft the remarkable images that the camera captures. Niccol is instrumental in this as well—it’s his vision that these people are bringing to the screen—but the task is so comprehensive, and the work so varied, that it’s hard to see it exclusively, or even primarily, as the achievement of one person. Gattaca is a prime example of a wonderful thing that sometimes happens in the movies. Maybe Niccol always had a crystal-clear vision, maybe Roelfs and the rest guided him to it, maybe it was a happy instance of the right people linking up with the right premise… only those who worked on the production can know the exact reasons, but however it happened, everyone seems to have let their imaginations run away with them in the best possible way. We see this in some of the other great sci-fi and fantasy movies of recent years, like The Matrix, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Dark City and Mad Max: Fury Road (both of which I’ll write about someday): the sense that the art department was inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty, creating an imagined world that’s not just exceptionally detailed and beautiful, but genuinely original and unique.

Specifically, they’ve done one of my favorite things in speculative sci-fi, which is to infuse the aesthetic of the future with various aesthetics of the past. This is a whole realm of artistic possibility all too often ignored by movies set in the imagined future, which tend to restrict themselves to some combination magnifying the style of the present, and creating a new one far removed from the world we know. There’s plenty of that in Gattaca, to be sure; many of the sleek interior spaces and the (now rather charmingly) retro-futuristic technology are in the same vein as the ultra-advanced futures of Star Trek, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even the 1972 Russian classic Solyaris. Here we must note the accomplishments of yet more unsung crew members: location manager Robert Earl Craft and his scouts and assistants, who managed to not just find, but wrangle permission to film at, some choice specimens of California architecture that fit perfectly into the movie’s elegantly streamlined world.

Yet even these advanced-future elements sometimes seem to be filtered through the aesthetics of the past. The Gattaca headquarters, for example, is played by Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1960 Marin County Civic Center, and to varying degrees, the other locations share a similar kind of postwar-futuristic vibe. And the world of the movie is filled out, so to speak, with a wonderful mash-up of past styles, like this future society has cherry-picked the aesthetic highlights of the 20th century. The interiors of leisure spaces, like lounges and concert halls, showcase the opulence of the Gilded Age; the clothing and hairstyles harken back to the glamorous 1940s and 50s; and while the cars are electric, everything else about them is straight out of the 60s, the decade when cars looked best. It’s all lovely to look at, and it also helps to deepen the overall impact of the movie; just like the cinematography, the production design captures both the great sophistication and the stifling rigidity of this imagined future in a beautifully unconventional way.

Something similar is going on with another element that I’ve rarely discussed before: the score, composed by Michael Nyman, which is not exactly what you’d expect in this sort of movie. I’m far too musically illiterate to analyze exactly how Nyman does it, but his music dovetails so well with the movie’s overall aesthetic that it’s easy to miss how unconventional it is for the genre. I don’t recall hearing any synthesizers, or many electronic tones of any kind—certainly none of the doomy, low-thrumming synths that the soundtracks of dystopian sci-fi thrillers are often built around. In keeping with the old-fashioned elegance of this world, Nyman sticks mostly to traditional analog instruments, most notably some beautifully resonant string arrangements, which also give the movie an undercurrent of melancholy that’s crucial to its emotional impact—it’s almost as if, even as the characters rarely express as much, the music is mourning the flawed but essential facets of human life that this society has stamped out in the name of progress. A perfect example is my favorite scene, when the adult Anton, now a detective, comes to the home of the Gattaca employee known as ‘Jerome Morrow,’ hoping to expose Vincent as an imposter; after his agonizing crawl up the stairs, the real Jerome, now known as Eugene, impersonates himself and foils Anton’s blood test. It’s one of the most conventionally thriller-like scenes in the movie, and Nyman’s music does add tension, but the oscillating strings also capture the essential weirdness of the situation, the underlying sadness, and the emotional turmoil beneath the composed facades of every character involved. It’s unconventional, but it dovetails perfectly with the movie’s larger aesthetic.

It all fits together because Niccol, takes a similar, subtly unconventional approach in his dual role as writer and director. Gattaca is a dystopian sci-fi thriller, and it holds our attention like one, but for a good chunk of its overall runtime, it moves away from the sort of storytelling that typically defines such movies. For one thing, the near-total absence of stunts is conspicuous enough to make you realize just how much contemporary sci-fi relies on action elements to keep us engaged. Here, many of what I call the ‘oh-shit’ moments, the surges of tension and the big reveals, are actually built around very simple things: an eyelash being sucked into a vacuum; the results of DNA tests popping up on a screen; Anton yelling, “Vincent!!” down a dark alley; a pair of contact lenses being surreptitiously removed; or a distinctive trinket placed on the hood of a car. Even the scenes of real physical peril, when you get down to it, simply raise the stakes on otherwise ordinary actions: swimming, running down an alley, crossing the street, or that house call of Anton’s, which consists, in the end, of a simple blood test. And then there’s the murder that he’s investigating, which seems set up to be a major focus of the plot, but then just as quickly recedes into the background; the victim is a character we never meet, and the story never feels primarily like one of a suspected murderer evading justice. Instead, Niccol folds the investigation into the larger narrative, using it not only to raise the stakes, but to give us a clearer sense of the way Vincent-as-Jerome lives in constant danger of being exposed, and to make more immediate the struggle he’s waging—both on a societal level, rebelling against the oppressive systems that restrict his prospects; and on a personal level, proving his worth to his genetically optimized brother. And despite the fact that the movie doesn’t unfold like a murder mystery, the investigation is still an essential part of it, both narratively and thematically; whatever his faults as a writer of dialogue, Niccol structures the story tightly and thoughtfully, ensuring that everything in it serves a clear purpose.

He also benefits from the efforts of his actors, who do a great deal to help sell this speculative, stylized world as a place that feels real to the people living in it. As is often the case, Ethan Hawke’s performance is, upon reflection, better than it initially appears. He can seem, at first, almost like a caricature of the obsessively driven, seductively brooding genius who often shows up in dystopian sci-fi, but after a while, Hawke lets us see how this persona is at least partly an act, making Vincent more sympathetic and lending credence to the idea of his transformation being so complete that the outside world sees no trace of his old self. Uma Thurman has less to do, but she lets just enough emotion sneak through her meticulously refined exterior to make her eventual change of heart seem plausible. Loren Dean, an actor I’ve never seen in anything else, is similarly effective as Anton, mixing flickers of doubt into his character’s air of ingrained confidence. And then there’s Jude Law (before he was famous!), who gives the movie’s best performance as the paralyzed Eugene, capturing the character’s understandable bitterness, his deepening investment in Vincent’s success, and his undiminished intelligence and wit—he’s the source of much of the humor that helps set Gattaca apart from most dystopian sci-fi. So too is Xander Berkeley as Lamar, the doctor who administers Gattaca’s DNA tests; it’s a small but important role, and with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes and a certain deadpan humor in his lines—bookended by two of the most decorous dick jokes in movie history—Berkeley conveys hints of a much gentler, more interesting guy behind the veneer of professionalism. Alan Arkin does something similar as Anton’s partner; as great a threat as he poses to Vincent, his canny instincts and blunt mannerisms carry a certain inevitable appeal amid the stifling refinement of Gattaca. And who better than Gore Vidal to embody the haughty entitlement of those who thrive in such exclusive spaces?

The point of all this is not to claim that the world of Gattaca is exceptionally realistic or believable. Which is fine; in fact, dystopian sci-fi that makes credibility its primary goal, trying to explain every conceivable plot hole and convince us that this absolutely could or will happen someday, tends not to work very well. And to be fair, I don’t think that’s really what the movie is going for; Niccol and his many collaborators, from the art department to the camera crew to the cast, choose instead to make full use of the creative freedom that speculative sci-fi allows—hence the beguiling aesthetic and the restrained storytelling. And they do it without sacrificing the one quality that really matters: whether or not this imagined future is strictly plausible, it is, in its own way, coherent—a world that adheres decently well to its own internal logic, and to which the characters respond in relatable ways.

And this, I think, is the main source of the Gattaca’s thematic resonance. Its immediate concerns about eugenics and genetic engineering were relevant in 1997 and are newly relevant today, and the movie posits a world that’s rather far-out, but coherent enough to make us think seriously about what a social order based on genetics might look like. But for me, it comes across even more powerfully as an indictment of institutionalized discrimination of any kind; the language used to enforce the genetic hierarchy echoes the language of oppression throughout history, and scenes like the one where a young Vincent is wordlessly intimidated out of a job interview by the prospect of a DNA test, bring to mind contemporary realities of unequal access to opportunity.

And more broadly, Gattaca is a forceful critique of any attempt to fully quantify human capability and potential. The message is ultimately hopeful: we may know more than ever about our genetic makeup, but we’re not slaves to it. Tellingly, almost every character goes against their genetic code in some way, and the results, good or bad, are always hugely consequential. There’s Vincent, obviously, overcoming his genetic limitations to realize his dream of going to space. Irene, the model of corporate conformity, turns out to be not just tolerant of, but actively attracted to someone who defies the system, and receptive to the idea that her own limitations might not be set in stone. Anton’s superior ‘helix’ leads to a level of overconfidence that nearly kills him, while his partner, older and more experienced but genetically relegated to subordinate status, turns out to be a better detective in pretty much every way. The director, who doesn’t have “a violent bone in [his] body,” turns out to be perfectly capable of cold-blooded murder. And Lamar, who was presumably hired for his genetic predisposition to do this job impeccably, is perfectly willing to bend the rules when he knows it’s right.

And then there’s Jerome, who doesn’t exactly go against his genetic code, but is still the movie’s best character. A lesser film would have made the arrangement between him and Vincent a major source of tension, with Jerome coming to resent Vincent using his genes to get ahead. But after bit of initial suspicion, that source of conflict melts away; the two men become good friends, and Jerome is soon just as committed to the deception as Vincent is. And he’s much more interesting as a result, exemplifying the problems with treating our DNA as the final word on who we are, and the dangers of organizing society around it. His genes place him at the tip-top of the privileged elite, but in a world that ranks people by their capabilities, his paralysis renders his perfect helix largely irrelevant. And even worse, we learn that this society is the reason he’s paralyzed in the first place; despondent over finishing second, and thereby not realizing his full genetic potential, he attempted suicide by stepping in front of a car. He could have been just another antagonist; instead, he’s a living, breathing reminder of the ways that discrimination hurts everybody in the end.[ii]

Whatever happens with genetic engineering, and whether or not future society adopts this retro-chic aesthetic, that message will continue to resonate.

© Harrison Swan, 2020


[i] They chose the all-time worst sci-fi movies as well, with interesting and amusing results: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/nasa-picks-best-worst-sci-fi-movies-what-are-yours-41527422/

[ii] Like last month, I wasn’t able to work in any of their words, but these reviews and articles were very helpful:

From Janet Maslin of the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/24/movies/film-review-the-next-bigotry-privilege-by-genetic-perfection.html

From Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gattaca-1997

And from Valerie Kalfrin: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gattaca-1997

Arrival (2016)

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If intelligent beings from outer space ever do visit us, it’s safe to assume they might be a little creeped out. Looking at our pop culture from their perspective, it would seem we’ve recently developed an ardent obsession with them; as long as we’ve known that other planets exist, we’ve been imagining their potential inhabitants. You’d think we would’ve exhausted the possibilities of such stories long ago, but there’s just something about aliens. We can’t get enough of them, especially in our cinema, so perfectly suited to the subject as the medium is. Movies about extraterrestrial life are as old as film itself; the first science fiction film—and one of the first narrative films, period—was A Trip to the Moon, which the French illusionist George Méliès conjured up in 1902, less than ten years after the Lumière Brothers’ 45-second vignettes, widely considered to be the first true films ever made. Funny, boisterous, and full of charmingly rudimentary special effects (which nevertheless must’ve blown audiences’ minds at the time), A Trip to the Moon is still fun to watch over a century later; you can sense the giddy exuberance of a skilled entertainer just beginning to discover the possibilities of a brand-new art form.[i] And of course, as his protagonists explore the fantastical lunar landscape, they encounter some wacky local inhabitants. Méliès, who still had one foot in the aesthetic of 19th-century fantastical theater, imagined them rather like feral mimes, and in the hundred-plus years since, movies have depicted extraterrestrials in all manner of ways, from friendly humanoids to immaterial spirits to monstrosities straight out of our worst nightmares. With technology now able to put pretty much any creature you can imagine up on the screen, and a glut of movies each year doing exactly that, it’s reasonable to wonder how a movie about aliens could possibly feel original anymore. But that’s exactly what happened in 2016 with Arrival, a gorgeous head-trip of a thriller that manages to evoke something like the sense of wonder and discovery that Méliès’ audiences must’ve felt in those earliest days of film. So how did it happen?

It certainly helps to have exceptionally compelling source material—in this case, a sublime, mind-expanding short story by the revered sci-fi writer Ted Chiang.[ii] That’s already impressive; Chiang’s work is uncommonly thoughtful and moving, but he leans heavily into the ‘science’ part of science fiction, resulting in dense, heady (yet somehow compulsively readable) stories that don’t translate easily to the language of film. He’s been around for decades, but this is the first of Chiang’s stories to make it to the big screen, and if nothing else, Arrival is a model of smart, imaginative adaptation from a difficult literary source. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer makes significant changes to the story, adding and subtracting characters, altering timelines, and even inventing an entire subplot that provides a great deal of dramatic tension and significantly expands the thematic scope of the narrative. But the movie nevertheless feels wonderfully true to its source material in the ways that matter; the changes serve to transmute the intellectual curiosity and wistful soul of the original story into a form more suitable to the more visual medium of film.

This is perhaps the first and foremost reason why Arrival feels so distinctive. Aliens are everywhere in our pop culture, but they often fall into two broad categories, especially onscreen: either enemies to be defended against (from War of the Worlds to Independence Day to Alien and its successors) or everyday inhabitants of an alternate universe living side by side with humans, as in the worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to name just a few. Arrival falls into a smaller sub-category: the ‘first contact’ story, in which Earth is visited by aliens who don’t automatically want to exterminate us, and the human world (usually not markedly different from the real one) tries to make sense of it. The best-known example would probably be Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the cinematic tradition goes at least as far back as The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. It’s not surprising that the analytical, scientifically-minded Chiang would go this route, or that he’d construct his narrative around the basic challenge of communicating with an unfamiliar alien species, with his characters using roughly the same approach that they would with a newly contacted human society. So the very nature of the story it has to tell sets Arrival apart from most other movies about extraterrestrials, and even compared to other first contact movies, its willingness to delve into the practical nitty-gritty of cross-species communication makes it unique.

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It also helps that the person bringing all this to the screen is one of the smartest, most technically accomplished directors working today, as Denis Villeneuve most certainly is. The French-Canadian auteur’s rise to prominence is fairly recent, and he can be a polarizing figure, hailed by some as a visionary and dismissed by others as a cynical, cold-hearted manipulator. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle; his consistently outstanding craft is refreshing, but it can lend his movies an air of intellectual seriousness that’s not always warranted, and his relentlessly bleak worldview can get a bit exhausting and pretentious. As great as it looks, I don’t understand anyone who actually enjoyed Prisoners (2013), a trashy revenge thriller disguised as a philosophical meditation on the need to buckle down and torture the hell out of anyone you think might know something about your missing daughter. The Oscar-nominated 2011 drama Incendies, which catapulted Villeneuve onto the directorial A-list, is a similar case: very well made, and so unrelentingly brutal that I don’t intend ever to watch it again. On the other hand, I was captivated by the Sicario (2015), which managed to explore classic themes of the western amid the horror of the contemporary drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Although I think its success is due at least in equal part to a brilliant performance by Benicio Del Toro, and to the musical wizardry of composer Jóhan Jóhansson—more on him later.) Same with the gloomy, visually stunning Blade Runner 2049 in 2017, which proved a worthy successor to the classic original (if not quite its equal), and provided a small measure of justice by finally securing an Oscar for the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. But Arrival is still Villeneuve’s best work, precisely because the story, by its very nature, tempers his darker inclinations. There’s drama and tension, even emotional anguish, but these don’t arise from physical violence, and the story is anything but despairing.

Meanwhile, the movie still benefits from Villeneuve’s exemplary, seemingly instinctive command of the medium. He almost always elicits compelling performances from the talented actors who flock to him, and even in collaboration with different cinematographers—three times with Deakins, here with the super-talented Bradford Young—he has developed a beautifully distinctive visual style. His shots are mostly steady, his camera movements fluid and precise, his framing meticulous and full of subtext, yet uncluttered and easy to wrap your head around. He also holds shots longer than many of his contemporaries, long enough for us to consider it as a deliberately crafted image, rather than simply another visual piece of an unfolding plot. There is, for lack of better terms, a unique visual grace to Villeneuve’s movies, but crucially, this goes hand in hand with an instinct for understatement and restraint. He stages and films action in a matter-of-fact sort of way, and he’s perfectly willing to let a moment play out or establish tone in a single shot if it’s getting the job done. It’s not that he’s doing his utmost to minimize the number of shots—a laudable impulse given the current epidemic of scissor-happy editing, but one that can easily turn into a gimmick—he’s simply confident enough in his images that he doesn’t feel the need to cut unless logic or artistry demands it. The result is a compelling visual aesthetic: carefully calibrated, even stylized, but also straightforward and instinctive, edited without a lot of flash—a closer-than-usual approximation of the way we might watch this stuff happening in real life.

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This signature visual style, highly polished yet firmly rooted in the real world, is a perfect fit for the kind of high concept sci-fi that Arrival represents. It may seem odd to speak about realism in a movie that features seven-tentacled aliens arriving in 1500-foot stone vessels shaped like skipping stones and teaching our protagonist, Louise, an entirely new language that lets her see the future—and save the world while she’s at it. But the realism is there, and it’s a key reason why Arrival works so well; this is an alien movie that thrills us not with an interspecies war or visions of a multi-species universe, but with a vivid depiction of extraterrestrials visiting an Earth that feels tantalizingly similar to our own. Villeneuve makes judicious use of special effects; the cavernous, otherworldly interior of the so-called ‘heptapods’’ ship is almost entirely CGI, but Louise’s house, her office, and the hallways of the university where she works have the ineffable but unmistakable feel of real locations, as opposed to sets in a studio. And the Montana field where the heptapods land is unmistakably a real field (actually in Quebec, but still), with CGI providing only the massive bulk of their ship, a significant but relatively simple and unobtrusive addition to the setting. The silent, stationary vessel is amazing, yet so unassuming that after a while, it starts to feel almost like a regular feature of the landscape; Villeneuve uses special effects not to create a new world, but to enhance the real one.[iii] Even the military’s small tent-and-trailer city beneath the ship feels true to life, despite the fact that very few of us know what such a thing would actually look like. The tightly organized cluster of heavy machinery and cramped, utilitarian structures full of state-of-the-art technology, convey what feels like an accurate combination of impermanence and cutting-edge sophistication. There are numerous small details it this unfamiliar setting that, taken together, ground it in the world we know: the hydraulic construction lift that raises the humans into the ship, the generic pickup trucks that transport them there and back, or the neat tablet app, presumably whipped up by military programmers, that Louise uses to construct sentences in the heptapod language.

The military encampment also contributes to a sense of realism that pervades the movie on a broader scale. Like the best sci-fi stories, Arrival only asks us to make a few suspensions of disbelief—pretty substantial ones here, but still, only a few—from which everything else follows quite realistically. This invariably makes the story more thrilling and engaging; we recognize that if this wildest of situations were ever to happen, this is more or less what it would look like: the government/military is in charge of things, but since the aliens aren’t attacking us, our principal envoys are the world’s top scientists and linguists—the people best equipped to communicate with and learn from them. The movie even has the guts to take a convincingly unflattering view of the general population, who react, quickly and across cultural divides, by losing their heads on a massive scale. To be fair, humanity’s political leaders aren’t much better; while mostly unseen, they’re forcefully present as a bunch of ignorant, overbearing supervisors, impeding Louise and her team’s progress and seemingly itching for an excuse to declare the heptapods our enemies and start attacking them. Given the global political shitstorm of the past few years, the tension feels more legitimate than ever.

Here again, Villeneuve’s knack for concise, understated storytelling is a huge asset. The movie unfolds on an epic scale, but he stays focused on its dramatic heart: the effort to learn the heptapods’ language and its effect on Louise. He makes a point of not taking us on distracting detours away from the encampment, conveying the chaos beyond its borders only through brief, evocative news clips. Some excellent supporting performances play a key role here; in lieu of a bunch of interchangeable political leaders, government oversight is efficiently represented by Michael Stuhlbarg’s snooty, officious CIA officer, while Mark O’Brien, as the team’s menacing military escort, Captain Marks, comes to embody a fearful humanity’s urge to lash out violently at what it doesn’t understand. For the more sensible side of humankind, we have Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, the mission commander. His accent is a bit mysterious (Boston? New York? Somewhere else on the Eastern Seaboard?), but we get used to it, and its air of levelheaded authority fits well with the character. The excellence of Whitaker’s performance is easy to miss; he makes Weber first and foremost a paragon of unflappable military discipline, but it’s always clear that there’s a human being beneath that tough exterior. He’s revealed to be a shrewd and effectual leader, by turns boldly authoritative and gently encouraging, deferential to the scientists’ expertise yet willing to override them if he feels he has to—whatever is needed to keep the mission on track and making progress. He’s a stabilizing presence, and a realistic one; if this ever actually happens, you’d expect and hope the military would have someone like him running the show.

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As we’ve mentioned, this sense of (relative) realism provides a certain inherent thrill on its own, but it also has a compounding effect on other, more common techniques for creating tension and excitement. Villeneuve has always been a skilled manipulator of audience emotions, and in Arrival, he does a masterful job of creating a captivating aura of mystery and anticipation—a nice change from his usual vibes of horror and despair. He gives us a vivid sense not only of what first contact might look like, but of how it might feel. Especially in the first act, there’s a palpable atmosphere of threat and wonder in equal measure, and like Louise, we feel both at the same time and vacillate between them. All first contact stories traffic in such emotions, though; Villeneuve’s great achievement is to keep them sustained and slow-burning through large chunks of the movie. He does this through skillful deployment of a simple storytelling technique, similar to what Spielberg did in Close Encounters: instead of one big, shocking reveal—‘Aliens have arrived! Look how bizarre and cool they are!’—he doles out information in small bits, letting the situation build at a deliberate, almost agonizing pace. Louise walks into work to find a hubbub in the halls and her classroom almost empty. She turns on the TV and we see her shock, but not the images causing it. We get a few indications of growing panic: evacuation of the university, a fender bender in the parking lot, a pair of jets screaming overhead, and a tense phone call between Louise and her mother. The next day, she finds the university totally deserted, and the news channels describe worldwide chaos. Every aspect of the story develops this way: in baby steps, often concurrently with other aspects. The government mission to the aliens appears first as Col. Weber in Louise’s office, dressed in civilian clothes; then as a helicopter thundering out of the night sky; then as the Montana encampment, which also expands as we see more of it. We hear vague descriptions of the ship and catch glimpses of it in news footage before we fully see it—and even then, it remains in the distance for a time. Before the characters go inside, the ship gets closer and closer until the scale becomes impossible to fathom, then there’s a slow lift ride up, and finally a close-up of our awestruck characters touching the hull. We hear a brief snippet of garbled alien-speak before we actually see the heptapods, and even then (in an especially clever touch), they remain partially obscured by mist until much later, when we finally see their massive upper body. Their language goes from unintelligible noises to mysterious symbols to a written language that our characters begin to understand, until finally Louise is speaking fluently with them. Et cetera, et cetera—there’s a constant feeling of rising action and new discovery. And the drive for verisimilitude is what allows Villeneuve to proceed in such small steps without losing our attention; any given development, even one that’s fairly insignificant on its own (and that anyone familiar with the basic premise could halfway anticipate) is charged with sense of awe that it would carry in real life, because it’s happening in a world we recognize. In Villeneuve’s hands, realism and wonder need not be mutually exclusive—in fact, they’re mutually reinforcing.

Not to mention the fact that amid these thrilling moments, there are curveballs thrown in—developments that are genuinely wild and unexpected. Which ones these are is subjective, but a few stand out to me: that beautiful, drawn-out shot of the initial approach to the Montana site; the trippy reorientation of gravity within the ship; the first glimpses of the heptapods’ elegant, calligraphic script; and the third act revelations, when the Louise’s comprehension of the language, and the newfound conception of time that comes with it, are finally made (mostly) clear. As effective as the more routine story beats are, these bursts of true originality are an essential part of what makes Arrival exceptional. They’re delightful to watch, for one thing—the sorts of moments that film can capture in a uniquely compelling way—but they’re also crucial in engendering the sense of wonder that’s essential to any great sci-fi movie. We may not be able to fully wrap our heads around the heptapods’ language (I certainly can’t), but in experiencing moments so unlike anything we’ve seen before, we feel the same way as the characters that can: like our intellectual horizons are widening. That such a gifted filmmaker is crafting these moments for us only enhances their sublime impact. Other efforts are crucial to all this as well, notably Patrice Vermette’s elegant production design and Joe Walker’s crisp editing, but especially at moments like these, Villeneuve is aided immeasurably by the efforts of composer Jóhan Jóhansson. Arrival was one of the last scores Jóhansson did before he tragically died in February 2018, at the age of just forty-nine, and he was one of the few truly original composers in the industry, well on his way to becoming one of the greatest of all time. His score for Villeneuve’s Sicario is, for my money, the best of the past decade or so (I swear, those throbbing, infinitely deep bass tones could inject a sense of doom into anything), and he does similarly compelling work here. There are strange, trippy electronic tones, otherworldly vocals, bursts of sound that seem instrumental one moment and entirely synthetic the next. I don’t know nearly enough about music to describe how he did it, but the score is both enchanting and unnerving, highly unconventional yet never grating in the way that experimental music often can be. It’s hard to describe, clearly, but the quality that runs through it all is beauty and a sense of strangeness and awe. It is, in other words, the ideal musical complement to the vibe that Villeneuve generates through other aspects of filmmaking—an appropriate soundtrack to a radical expansion of the boundaries of human experience.

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All this excellent technique wouldn’t amount to nearly as much, however, without such a quietly commanding lead performance to anchor it. Amy Adams has done excellent work in all manner of roles,[iv] but her performance as Louise Banks is in a class by itself. As always, her ability to convey emotion is impressive; she makes the opening sequence of her daughter being born, playing around, and dying young about as devastating as any actress could in less than five minutes, and convincingly projects not only the intelligence of an accomplished linguist—one of the world’s most prominent, given the reverence with which her team greets her—but also the sorrow, self-doubt, and reticence of a damaged individual. And this skillful navigation of the movie’s emotional beats, combined with her natural air of openness, make her a uniquely accessible and empathetic set of eyes through which to experience this story. We believe that she’s a brilliant academic with a great deal of esoteric expertise, but we can also relate, each in our own way, to her sense of melancholy isolation, not to mention the roiling cocktail of emotions that she’s feeling when the aliens arrive—her performance, embodying the way we’d feel in similar circumstances, is as important as Villeneuve’s technique in creating that mesmerizing aura of fear and wonder that rings so true to life.

She also helps to keep us oriented when the complicated work of deciphering the heptapods’ language begins in earnest. The movie doesn’t delve as deeply into the intricacies of linguistics as Chiang’s story, but the translation process can still be difficult to follow, despite screenwriter Heisserer’s rigorous attempts to streamline and simplify it. Perhaps the problem is that he overdoes it a bit; the big breakthrough, from realizing how the language works to being able to communicate in it, is the one part of the movie that doesn’t quite feel sufficiently developed. But I think that’s mostly because the heptapods’ script is so aesthetically pleasing, and the central conceit (that every stroke and whirl in the logogram conveys meaning, all at the same time) so intriguing that we naturally want to learn more about it. Meanwhile, Adams’ magnetism allows us to run with it without feeling too lost—we trust Louise, in a sense—and in broader storytelling terms it’s a minor issue, because the main focus of the narrative is not the process of learning the language per se, but the radical new perspective that the process gives to Louise. (It also helps that while this is pure fiction, it’s based on a bit of actual linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even if it does take the concept farther than any linguist would.[v]) Arrival succeeds as a realistic and thrilling vision of first contact, but in the tradition of all great sci-fi, it manages to find, amid all that spectacle, an emotionally powerful exploration of the human condition. Chiang has stated that the original story arose not from speculation about aliens or even linguistics, but from philosophical questions about time and memory, the emotional consequences of knowing the future, accepting the inevitable and finding a way to live even if you know that tragedy lies ahead. Villeneuve and Heisserer wisely follow Chiang’s lead in making these universal questions the thematic core of the movie, and Adams brings them vividly to life onscreen.

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Which makes it especially impressive that the movie also manages to expand upon the source material in significant ways. The subplot about rising global tensions and General Shang of the Chinese Army is almost entirely invented, and here again, Adams’ sympathetic performance is a key reason why it works. In the face of the mind-bending challenge of communicating with the newly arrived heptapods, Louise’s shock and uncertainty are easy understand, but her intellectual curiosity is also contagious—we identify with her and her view of the situation as an opportunity for intellectual growth, rather than with certain other characters who see it as a threat to be overcome. One fascinating thing about Arrival is that it has no clear villain. General Shang and Captain Marks could fit the role, but only at certain points and not in any thoroughgoing way; instead, the main antagonistic forces are simply our own worst impulses. Suspicion, fear-mongering, misunderstanding and willful deception, lashing out in panic at the unfamiliar ‘other’—these are the threats to be overcome. It’s another thematic facet of the story that Chiang only touched on, and one that’s downright starry-eyed by Villeneuve’s standards. On top of everything else, Arrival is an ode to the power of communication, science, diplomacy, and learning from one another.

It’s a message that we need more than ever these days. And we still get all the fun of aliens and spaceships and time-bending shenanigans along with it.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] A fun fact to consider is that the actual moon landing occurred only 67 years after the film was made, meaning that a not-insignificant number of people probably lived to see both—not to mention two World Wars and a radical transformation of human civilization in general.

[ii] The enigmatic Chiang happens to be one of my favorite contemporary writers. Reticent, self-effacing, and willing to immerse himself in a subject for years before writing about it, he has kept his day job as a technical writer for a software company throughout his nearly thirty-year career, during which he’s published just fifteen short stories and one novella. Not bad for someone widely considered one of the best and most influential sci-fi writers of his generation. The New Yorker did an interesting (and intriguingly sparse) profile of him last year: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/ted-chiangs-soulful-science-fiction

[iii] Although he can certainly bring an entirely fictional world to life as well as anyone, too. I refer you again to Blade Runner 2049, preferably on a big screen; one area in which the movie equals, and occasionally even surpasses, Ridley Scott’s original is in the way it uses the latest cinematic wizardry to create a stunningly convincing vision of the dystopian Los Angeles of the near future.

[iv] Watch this and American Hustle back to back, and marvel that it’s the same actress in both movies.

[v] An interesting discussion of the movie and the heptapods’ language with one such linguist can be found here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/11/22/a_linguist_on_arrival_s_alien_language.html