The following article includes copious SPOILERS for Arrival. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to do so, please don’t read this. There is a mystery at the core of Arrival’s plot, and you should experience it fully. If you are looking for a spoiler-free review of Arrival, check out Kevin Nye’s earlier review for us.
I’ve been rather cold on Denis Villenueve’s films in the past. I find his films cinematically shallow, because while his films deal with percolating social issues via arresting, pulpy stories, those issues are communicated by the plot and in the dialogue. There are only brief moments of visual wit, such as the shots of the suggestively empty suburban streets in Prisoners, the ontological void of the Chihuahuan Desert in Sicario, or a bank of monitors declaring “Disconnected” in Arrival.
Those kinds of shots are so rare, I’m inclined to credit them to their respective films’ Directors of Photography, Roger Deakins for the former films and Bradford Young in the later. The narrative quality of those respective shots differs as well, and each film is absent of suggestive shots similar to those in the other DP’s films. Deakins uses landscape and space to communicate tragic inevitability (cf. the Coens’ filmography). Young doesn’t do much with landscapes, instead situating ironic meaning in elements of mise en scene. Besides the “disconnected” monitor shot, another related shot I appreciate in Arrival is that of a helicopter bearing thunderously toward the camera. I’ll get to why in a moment.
If there was photographic consistency across Villeneuve’s films, I’d be comfortable crediting him with the meaningful shots, but there isn’t. Even when the opportunity presents itself in Arrival to use some of the same visual “tricks” we see in Villeneuve’s earlier films, he doesn’t take them. Arrival’s aliens(?) appear in twelve different locations on Earth, and the film is about those disconnects between people around the world, but Arrival doesn’t go the Deakins route and center meaning in the diversity of the landscapes around each monolith. Instead, the film goes the Young route and shows how the people on the ground are reacting to the invaders. Location is communicated by on-screen text (usually on a screen within the diagesis). The landscape itself is inconsequential. To be clear, I’m not trying to pit Deakins against Young and claim one method is “better” than the other. They are just different. My point is that the way meaning is made cinematically in Villeneuve’s films is inconsistent. There is no clear authorial voice. He’s more brand than auteur, the Rod Serling of the contemporary multiplex, and I think he deserves credit for marshaling other talented artists to create such audience-pleasing films under his auspices.
Villeneuve is consistent across his filmography is his tendency to place theme right on the surface of his films, and the themes he chooses are thinkpiece-ready – torture in Prisoners, the war on drugs in Sicario, and language in Arrival (admittedly, I have not seen Enemy or his French language films). In each case though, I find the substrata of the narrative—fear’s effect on morality in Prisoners, the effectiveness of violence in Sicario, and globalization in Arrival—much more compelling, in large part because the surface material doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. There’s a “have your cake and eat it too” flippancy to torture and drugs in the first two films, and Arrival’s linguistic theory embraces pseduo-science like a fixed dog humping a couch cushion. It’s not even fair to call it pseudo-science. The “language shapes thought and allows pan-time awareness” idea is pure fantasy derived from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. (Google that if you like.) The film seems aware of how ridiculous its “linguistic theory” is, too. As Amy Adams’ Louise Banks says of her story about kangaroos, it’s not true, but it proves the point. What point is Villeneuve proving? For that, we have to look at the other consistent aspect of his filmography.
A Cinema of Collapse
Villeneuve’s filmography is a cinema of collapsing borders. The borders between religions collapse in Incendies. The borders between neighbors collapse in Prisoners. The borders between identity collapse in Enemy. The borders between nations collapse in Sicario. And now, in Arrival, the borders between the past, the present, and the future collapse, as well as the borders between species, I suppose, but that’s ancillary to the film’s focus on time. In all these cases, Villeneuve’s films consider how we negotiate between right and wrong given these collapses.
The collapsing time conceit plays into Arrival’s underlying anxiety about globalization. The collapsing of the things that previously separated us is what globalization is all about. We humans collapsed space via electronic communication methods (Arrival climaxes with a phone call) and via air travel (recall that shot of the helicopter bearing down on the camera I mentioned earlier). We collapsed our economies via Capitalism (one of the first news reports we hear regarding the aliens is how their arrival has effected the stock market). Some would argue that we’ve collapsed our political identities via post-WWII treaties and alliances like NATO and the UN, though nations still operate autonomously within those organizations (Arrival’s tension depends on national autonomy, and the sign that peace has been achieved is a sort of “all nations” gathering that features prominently in the film’s climax).
Now, in Arrival, these aliens show up and give humanity the ability to collapse time as well. The film’s ultimate questions is: “Is the collapsing of our borders—physical or metaphorical—worth the associated pain?” Arrival answers, yes, it is, because of the coexistent joy we would never know otherwise. And that’s fine on an individual level, but some people don’t benefit from collapsed borders, like the tortured neighbor in Prisoners, the people found in the walls in Sicario, or “Costello” in Arrival, to name only a few. Villeneuve’s films don’t wholly neglect the plight of these people, but their fates are used for shock value primarily and as tools for the awakening of the films’ protagonists.
That’s the other arena in which Villeneuve’s films bother me. I feel like they use vulnerable people for dramatic effect. Given his film’s thinkpiece-ready surface themes, marginalizing vulnerable persons in this way is especially troubling. (This criticism is similar to my distaste for Danny Boyle’s films.)
I often wonder whom filmmakers are making films for. I’m sure filmmakers like Villeneuve would say they’re making films for the broadest possible audience—ticket sales, you know?—but that’s too vague. There has to be a particular kind of person or people in the minds of filmmakers who their films are for. I’d like to ask Villeneuve (and other filmmakers), “What is the audience like?” and then tease out their answer, because I’m sure it wouldn’t come easily. Most often, artists take the predilections of their audience for granted.
And if Villeneuve doesn’t have an audience in mind, if he consciously makes him films “for himself” or “for his kids” or “for his wife” or “for whomever,” I’d like to know that too.
Because it seems to me that Villeneuve makes films for people in power. They are about people with power who are forced to reckon with their place in the world as the borders (again, physical and metaphorical) that protected them collapse. So the vulnerable get short shrift, because the movies aren’t about them, they aren’t “for them.” The empowered protagonists are the ones who need to reckon with the collapsing borders.
That’s okay, I guess. Privileged people need to learn to embrace the painful effects of collapsing borders, since they’re the ones who built up the walls in the first place. Villeneuve’s films have the potential to help powerful people learn that.
But powerful people also need to care about the collapsing borders because of the way their collapse affects people without power. They need to care for the vulnerable, otherwise we risk breaking down walls without regard for the people huddling underneath them for shelter. Villeneuve’s films don’t help with that, and I often fear the things implied by films have greater effect than the things stated outright. What we don’t think about has as much influence on our lives as what we do, and none of us are going to have pertinent thoughts placed in our heads by well-meaning heptapods, though we might have them placed there by a movie if that movie is crafted with great artistry and care.