The question of how we would greet an alien race is the basis of so much great sci-fi. There’s no denying that Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind set the template, but there’s a reason why we see filmmakers coming back to explore that hypothetical moment of first contact over and over again. It’s a prospect that is both exciting and terrifying. What will they look like? Will they come in peace, or will they come to wipe us out? And perhaps most importantly of all, how will we greet them? Will this moment, when it comes, see us at our best, or our worst?
These questions form the basis of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which has been wowing festival audiences since it premiered at Venice on 1 September. Based on the short story ‘Story Of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, it begins with the arrival of 12 gigantic alien spacecraft around the world. As the respective nations struggle to decide how react, Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) recruits linguistic professor Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to attempt to communicate with these visitors.
“It was really one of the best scripts I ever read, and it had such an amazing heart and soul to it, and on top of that, it had these sci-fi elements, which were also interesting and intriguing,” Adams tells us. “It definitely falls in the category of sci-fi, but all the greatest sci-fi films that I have enjoyed offer a lot of complex ideas. It’s not solved with simplicity, and it begs a lot of conversation from the audience and a lot of thinking. But at the end of the day, it left me with such a deep connection to Louise that it was hard for me to imagine letting it go and not sort of getting to see it through.”
Sure enough, conflict rears its ugly head. Despite the presence of Dr Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), this is a military operation in the US, and all around the world. It’s not just a question of Louise convincing Colonel Webber and CIA stooge Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) that they need to give these visitors the benefit of the doubt; it’s up to her to persuade every superpower that they need to listen to her and not their itchy trigger fingers.
“It is about communication, and lack of communication,” she explains. “Louise says something in the opening where she says, ‘It’s the moments in between.’ When we are only focused on the big moments and the big conflicts, we are missing all of the little things that make up a life and make up the texture of our lives, which makes us miss other people. And then we can’t communicate clearly when you are not seeing them clearly.”
Villeneuve has established himself as one of modern cinema’s most exciting directors, working in different genres and languages for an incredible run over the last few years. He really got going in 2010 with searing Middle East-set drama Incendies, then in 2013 he had both the mind-bending Cronenbergian sci-fi with Enemy, and the gripping missing-kid thriller Prisoners. Last year saw him deliver the gripping cartel thriller Sicario, and he’s sticking with science fiction for his next little film: Blade Runner 2049, which we’re all just a little bit excited about.
“I have not seen his French film,” Adams tells us. “But I have seen his other films, and it feels like he is able to redefine the genre with his films, with this emotional core to it. He really seems to have this emotional intelligence, and Denis himself is a very compassionate man. Even the characters that might seem unsympathetic or unlikable, you end up having a connection with them. I think that is because Denis has a very strong connection to humanity himself. He is very much in touch with that.”
Arrival will be released in cinemas on 10 November 2016. For all the latest movie news, pick up the new issue of SciFiNow.