Denis Villeneuve is no stranger to producing heavy and thought provoking material, with Enemy being such an enigmatic film that the cast were made to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to maintain its mysteries. Even his films Sicario and Prisoners had its hands delved into a pool of grittiness, the former he called “a dark poem” and the latter dealing with the malevolence of child abduction, but most importantly, none of his films are ever the same; illustrating his risky, yet adventurous approach to filmmaking.
His new film is no exception. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 Nebula Award winning short novel Story of Your Life, both Villeneuve and writer Eric Heissener meticulously study the specifics of Chiang’s novel and succeed in creating one of the most head-scratchingly mesmerising sci-fi movies of all time.
“Why are they here?” The film’s tagline runs consistent throughout its entirety, with the vulnerable humans seeking answers. Who are they? What do they want? As you would expect our humans fear the unknown, seeing the extra-terrestrial encounter as an immediate threat to humanity, and they must act fast. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) recruitment by the military, along with the assistance of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is a diplomatic one. While the rest of the planet fail in their attempts to communicate with the ‘Heptapods’ (named after their seven tentacle-like legs), Banks and Donnelly discover that the alien life-forms have their own distinct language through the use of signs and symbols, something that the pair must decode in order to find the answers to their questions.
Villeneuve’s film has its roots deep in semiotic practices, tipping its proverbial hat to the works of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Peirce, approaching language as a series of signs. From these signs we make our own interpretations, and the associations we make from these signs is a fragile and potentially devastating process. “If I were only to give you a hammer, everything looks like a a nail” was the analogy made between Banks and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), a perfect piece of writing by Heissener.
The ‘arrival’ of the Heptapods in their 1,500ft tall ‘shells’, and the film as a whole, holds a mirror in the face of humanity, outlining our species’ inability to cooperate together to unify against a mutual threat. However, the Heptapods don’t pose a threat to Earth, in fact, their purpose is very much beneficial to mankind, acting as a symbolic bridge connecting all areas of the globe in the hope of consolidating together as a unified species. Scarily though, the film depicts perhaps the most accurate prediction of what an alien encounter would be like, and although we cross our fingers hoping we’ll never experience it, we can’t help but admire its proposed authenticity.
The film’s main thrills, however, come from the interactions between Louise and the two unknown visitors. These interactions are atmospherically heightened by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s radiating and pulsating soundtrack and the work of the wonderful visual effects team, helping to amplify the sinister and ominous presence of the inhuman opposition.
As the film unravels, Villeneuve’s narrative becomes much more dense, delving into the psychology of Louise and her extraordinary ‘gift’, or ‘weapon’ as the Heptapods call it, and although the film should start lose its audience at this point, Villeneuve places faith in the intelligence of his viewer, resulting in an incredible non-linear final act that, much like the symbols that the Heptapods use to communicate, comes full circle. Arrival is a risky film and will undeniably leave you with a throbbing headache, but embrace that pain, because it was well earned.
An important and mesmerising reflection of humanity!