Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Denis Villeneuve|
|Screenplay by||Eric Heisserer|
|Based on||"Story of Your Life"|
by Ted Chiang
|Music by||Jóhann Jóhannsson|
|Edited by||Joe Walker|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$203.4 million|
Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer. Based on the 1998 short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, it stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. The film follows a linguist enlisted by the United States Army to discover how to communicate with extraterrestrial aliens who have arrived on Earth, before tensions lead to war.
The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, 2016, and was released in the United States and Canada by Paramount Pictures on November 11, 2016. It grossed $203 million worldwide and received praise for Adams's performance, Villeneuve's direction, and its exploration of communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Considered one of the best films of 2016, Arrival appeared on numerous critics' year-end lists and was selected by the American Film Institute as one of ten "Movies of the Year".
It received eight nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, and won for Best Sound Editing. It also received Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress for Adams and Best Original Score for Jóhann Jóhannsson, and was awarded the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2017. The score by Jóhannsson was nominated for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the 60th Grammy Awards.
Twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft silently hover over disparate locations around the Earth. Affected nations send military and scientific experts to monitor and study them; in the United States, US Army Colonel G.T. Weber recruits Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly to study the craft above Montana. On board, Banks and Donnelly make contact with two seven-limbed aliens, whom they call heptapods; Donnelly nicknames them Abbott and Costello. Banks and Donnelly research the complex written language of the aliens, made of palindrome phrases written with circular symbols, and share results with other nations. As Banks studies the language, she starts to have flashback-like visions of her daughter.
When Banks is able to establish sufficient shared vocabulary to ask why the aliens have come, they answer with a statement which could be translated as "offer weapon". China interprets this as "use weapon", prompting it to break off communications, and other nations follow. Banks argues that the symbol interpreted as "weapon" can be more abstractly referred to the concept of "means", "tool"; China's translation likely results from interacting with the aliens using mahjong, a highly competitive winner-take-all game.
Rogue soldiers plant a bomb in the Montana craft. Unaware, Banks and Donnelly re-enter the alien vessel, and the aliens give them an extremely complex message. Just before the bomb explodes, one of the aliens ejects Donnelly and Banks from the vessel, knocking them unconscious. When they reawaken, the military is preparing to evacuate in case of retaliation, and the craft has moved out of reach.
Donnelly discovers that the symbol for time is present throughout the message, and that the writing occupies exactly one twelfth of the 3D space in which it is projected. Banks suggests that the full message is split among the twelve craft, and the aliens want all the nations to share what they learn.
China's General Shang issues an ultimatum to his local alien craft, demanding that it leave China within 24 hours. Russia, Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Communications between the international research teams are terminated as worldwide panic sets in.
Banks goes alone to the craft, and it sends down a transport pod. Abbott is dying as a result of the explosion; Costello explains that they have come to help humanity, for in 3,000 years they will need humanity's help in return. Banks realises the "weapon" is their language, which changes humans' linear perception of time, allowing them to experience "memories" of future events. Banks's visions of her daughter, Hannah, are revealed to actually be premonitions; her daughter will not be born until some time in the future.
Banks returns to the camp as it is being evacuated and tells Donnelly that the aliens’ language itself is the "tool". Confirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that a language shapes the fundamental brain cognition of those who speak it, those who master the aliens’ language are able to perceive the future and past. She has a premonition of a United Nations event celebrating newfound unity following the alien arrival, in which Shang thanks her for having convinced him to call off the attack by calling his private number and reciting his wife's dying words: "War doesn't make winners, only widows."
In the present, Banks steals CIA agent Halpern's satellite phone, a rarity when phones have been confiscated on the base, and calls Shang's number to recite the words. The Chinese announce that they are standing down and release their twelfth piece of the message. The other countries follow suit, and the twelve craft depart.
During the evacuation of the camp, Donnelly expresses his love for Banks. They talk about life choices and whether he would change them if he could see the future. Banks knows that she will agree to have a child with him despite knowing their fate: that Hannah will die, and Donnelly will leave them after she reveals that she knew this.
Development and pre-production
Arrival is based on the Nebula-winning science fiction novella, "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, written in 1998. As with the film, "Story of Your Life" involves Earth's first communication with heptapods who speak in a cryptic language. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer had been introduced to the story through another of Chiang's stories, "Understand", and had begun reading through Chiang's collected works when "Story of Your Life" had a "profound emotional effect" on him. As a result, he decided to try and adapt the story into a film script as he wanted to share it with a wider audience. After writing an initial script, Heisserer pitched it to production companies for several years without receiving any interest and nearly gave up on the project. Heisserer believes it was not until he had successfully completed and produced 2013's Hours that others took interest in his work, having proved himself capable. Eventually, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen of 21 Laps Entertainment expressed interest in Heisserer's script. Shawn Levy of 21 Laps said they had become aware of "Story of Your Life" around 2011 and considered it a powerful work; and when they learned of Heisserer's script adaption, started working closely with him, helping him refine the script before they began seeking a director and distribution studio.
One of the directors that 21 Laps approached was Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve had wanted to make a science fiction film for some time, although he "never found the right thing". Cohen and Levine, however, introduced Villeneuve to the novella, which the director immediately took to, although his work on Prisoners meant that he did not have the time to properly adapt it into a screenplay with Heisserer. Heisserer completed a first draft, which Villeneuve and Heisserer reworked into the final script. Villeneuve changed the title, as he felt the original sounded like a romantic comedy and that the script had become very different from the short story. While Villeneuve went through "hundreds" of possible titles, Arrival was the first one his team of producers and writers had suggested.
Heisserer had made several changes from "Story of Your Life" between writing his original screenplays and the final script, the main one being that, the heptapods actually arrived on Earth in a type of first contact situation, as he felt this helped to create the tension and conflict needed for a film. Heisserer said that earlier versions of the script had a different ending: the gift from the heptapods was to have been "blueprints to an interstellar ship, like an ark of sorts", to enable humanity to help them in 3,000 years. But after the release of Interstellar in 2014, Heisserer and Villeneuve agreed that this would not work, and decided that the heptapods' gift would be what was "there in front of us … the power of their language".
Amy Adams entered negotiations to star in the film in April 2014, and would be confirmed by the time Jeremy Renner joined the film in March 2015. Forest Whitaker signed on in April, with Michael Stuhlbarg joining soon after in June. Adams, who was playing a linguistics professor in the film, consulted with linguist Jessica Coon to prepare for her role.
Principal photography lasted for 56 days, beginning on June 7, 2015, after Renner had fulfilled his obligations to Captain America: Civil War. Filming was done mainly in and around Montreal, Quebec, Canada, with Saint-Fabien serving as Montana. The team took some time to find the right site to represent the landing of the spacecraft, because producers wanted to avoid a mountainous site that might dwarf the scale of the ship, but thought that a barren location would be clichéd. Most of the filming that did not involve the exterior of a ship was done indoors on sound stages, although a real house located in Chemin de l'Île, Montreal was used as Banks's home. The scenes of the university where Banks teaches were shot at HEC Montréal.
Bradford Young was sought out by Villeneuve as he was looking for a cinematographer with a sensibility towards natural lighting. "I wanted the movie to have strong roots in realism. I wanted a cinematographer who would not be afraid to deal with intimacy. It’s a very specific sensibility that I felt in Bradford’s previous work." Color timing was used as a means of matching Louise's state of mind at a given moment. Young stated "I went for cooler colors when I wanted Amy to feel worn down. We tried to pull back on that a little bit, but then Denis stopped me in the [color timing] and told me not to be so concerned about skin tone and let her be pasty, let her exist in that melancholy space, let us feel that visually." When discussing the film with Villeneuve, Young described the director's goal of making a "dirty" science fiction film, by making the look of the film more grounded and "slightly boring" as Villeneuve put it. Additionally, Young looked towards the book Speedway by photographer Martina Hoogland Ivanow as a reference for the look of the film.
Production designer Patrice Vermette discussed the film in a February 2017 interview with Popular Mechanics, stating that a big influence on the look of the film was the works of artist James Turrell, particularly the design of the meeting room aboard the alien craft. "I wanted the simplicity and the sensorial experience you feel in a room like that. That big screen was always there in the script, and I used it as an element to unite Louise's world. For me, that big screen is more than a screen—that room, which they called in the script 'the interview room,' is a classroom. That big white screen, [you see it] represented in Louise's house with the big window. You also see it in her school, in her classroom."
Both the book and the screenwriting required the invention of a form of alien linguistics which recurs in the plot. The film uses a script designed by the artist Martine Bertrand (wife of the production designer Patrice Vermette), based on scriptwriter Heisserer's original concept. Computer scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram analyzed it to provide the basis for Banks's work in the film. Their works are summarized in a Github repository. Three linguists from McGill University were consulted. The sound files for the alien language were created with consultation from Morgan Sonderegger, a phonetics expert. Lisa Travis was consulted for set design during the construction of the scientist's workplaces. Jessica Coon, a Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages, was consulted for her linguistics expertise during review of the script. Heisserer said at the Alamo Drafthouse's Fantastic Fest premiere of Arrival at the end of September 2016 that Shang's wife's last words, translated into English, were "In war, there are no winners, only widows". Villeneuve decided not to include subtitles for the line; Heisserer said he would have preferred it not be kept secret, and was happy to reveal the translation.
Jóhann Jóhannsson began writing the score as shooting started, drawing on the screenplay and concept art for inspiration. He developed one of the main themes in the first week using vocals and experimental piano loops. The original soundtrack was released by Deutsche Grammophon on November 11, 2016.
Max Richter's pre-existing piece "On the Nature of Daylight" is featured in the film's opening and closing scenes. Due to the prominent use of Richter's music, which had also featured in Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island, Jóhannsson's score was deemed ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, the rationale being that voters would be influenced by the use of pre-existing music when judging the merits of the score.
A teaser trailer was released in August 2016, followed the next week by the first official trailer. Paramount Pictures released a series of promotional posters, with one showing a UFO hovering above a Hong Kong skyline that included Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower. The inaccuracy angered Hong Kong social media users. The posters were withdrawn and a statement attributed the inaccuracy to a third-party vendor.
In May 2014, while titled Story of Your Life, Paramount acquired the US and Canadian distribution rights. Shortly after, Sony Pictures Releasing International and Stage 6 Films acquired some international distribution rights, while Entertainment One acquired the UK distribution rights and Roadshow Films acquired Australian distribution rights. Spentzos Films acquired distribution rights for Greece, Lev Cinemas for Israel, Italia Films for the UAE, and Chantier Films for Turkey. The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, 2016. It also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, and the BFI London Film Festival. The film was released on November 11, 2016.
Arrival grossed $100.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $102.8 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $203.4 million, against a production budget of $47 million.
In the United States and Canada, Arrival was released alongside Almost Christmas and Shut In, and was originally expected to gross around $17 million from 2,317 theaters in its opening weekend, with the studio projecting a more conservative debut of $12–15 million. The film made $1.4 million from Thursday night previews at 1,944 theaters and $9.4 million on its first day, pushing projections up to $24 million. It ended up grossing $24.1 million over the weekend, finishing third at the box office. In its second weekend, the film grossed $12.1 million (a drop of 49.6%), and in its third made $11.5 million (dropping just 5.6%). Following its eight Oscar nominations, the film returned to 1,221 theaters on January 27, 2017 (an increase of 1,041 from the week before) and grossed $1.5 million (up 357.4% from its previous week's $321,411).
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 94% based on 423 reviews, with an average rating of 8.42/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Arrival delivers a must-see experience for fans of thinking person's sci-fi that anchors its heady themes with genuinely affecting emotion and a terrific performance from Amy Adams." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 81 out of 100, based on 52 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.
Robbie Collin of The Telegraph praised the film, calling it: "introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined—yet [it] unfolds in an unwavering tenor of chest-tightening excitement. And there is a mid-film revelation—less a sudden twist than sleek unwinding of everything you think you know—that feels, when it hits you, like your seat is tipping back." Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com gave the film three out of four: "It's a movie designed to simultaneously challenge viewers, move them and get them talking. For the most part, it succeeds." For Time, Sam Lansky described it as "sophisticated, grownup sci-fi: a movie about aliens for people who don't like movies about aliens". IGN reviewer Chris Tilly gave it a score of 8.5 out of 10, saying: "Arrival is a language lesson masquerading as a blockbuster, though much more entertaining than that sounds… it's smart, sophisticated sci-fi that asks big questions, and does a pretty good job of answering them". Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times praised Adams's performance, stating "Arrival is really Adams’ film, a showcase for her ability to quietly and effectively meld intelligence, empathy and reserve". Writing for USA Today, Brian Truitt referred to Adams as a "definite Oscar contender, and credited Adams as "spectacular in giving Louise the right emotional balance".
Conversely, Forrest Wickman of Slate had a more mixed opinion of the film, praising the cinematography and musical score, but stating that he thought it was similar to Christopher Nolan's "only intermittently stellar" Interstellar, and criticising the dialogue as "clunky". In a heavily negative review, Rex Reed of The New York Observer gave the film one out of four, calling it Villeneuve's "latest exercise in pretentious poopery" and also being critical of the lack of action in the storyline.
The Guardian rated it as the third-best film of 2016. Critic Catherine Shoard said that it "amounts to something transcendent; something to reignite your excitement for cinema, for life". Numerous other publications and websites, including io9, Den of Geek, Mir Fantastiki, The Atlantic, Blastr, and Digital Trends named Arrival the best film of 2016.
Response from academics
David Adger, a linguist professor who teaches at Queen Mary University of London had a favourable view of the accuracy of the linguistics in Arrival, saying that "the portrayal of trying different hypotheses about the language, coming up with generalizations, and testing them out was spot on."
Similarly, Jessica Coon, a linguistic professor who teaches at McGill University and helped with the films linguistics stated that "what the film gets exactly right is both the interactive nature but also that you really have to start small." However, she noted that the creators had not invented an entirely new language.
Linguistics professor Betty Birner, who teaches at Northern Illinois University, said that the film's use of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis went "beyond anything that is plausible". She also felt the film oversimplified the process of translating the aliens' language, skipping straight from Banks establishing the basic vocabulary of the language, to her being able to understand abstract concepts such as "weapon".
Scholar Luca Zanchi has compared the collapsing of time and causality in the storyline to the state of enlightenment and the powers of the bodhisattvic mind as described in Mahayana Buddhism. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, these spiritual attainments include cognition unbound by time and space. However, in Chiang's interviews there are no explicit references of inspiration by religion or meditative practice.
Arrival received numerous awards and nominations. At the 89th Academy Awards, it won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design and Best Sound Mixing. Additionally, at the 74th Golden Globes, Adams received a nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson received a nomination for Best Original Score.
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