Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016) is one of the cleverest and best executed big budget science fiction films I’ve ever seen. To me it is science fiction in its purest form, taking an idea or a theory and extrapolating the consequences.
Arrival is a film that lives in the hinterland where language and science meet. The fascinating mysteries of how our brains are affected by the languages we speak. Thousands of words have been expounded on whether and how our way of seeing the world is influence by the languages we speak. (Through the Language Glass: Why The World Looks Different In Other Languages by Guy Deutscher is a pretty accessible look at the subject if you’re interested.) And the answer is currently, mostly, we don’t really know. Or at least we can’t actually prove anything. Subjectively, I can say that yes, I absolutely do think and see the world differently in Gaelic than I do in English – whether that difference is merely in perspective or an actual neurological change is one for the scientists to argue over, but nonetheless it’s a large part of why this film worked for me on an intrinsic level.
What I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by the sound design. I have a long established pet-hate of the ‘turn it up to 11’ school of blockbuster sound and while some of that can be mitigated by a bit of common sense in the projection box of your cinema – I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD and can now appreciate why it won prizes for its sound editing, but in the cinema my ears were ringing too much for me to notice – there is very rarely any deftness or subtlety to enjoy.
The sound department for this film appear to be mostly French and entirely brilliant. I love that they devoted two separate Sound Designers to the aliens. One for the alien’s themselves and one for their shell ship. The world inside the Shell Ship felt utterly sonically alien, the sense of a sealed environment, an initially claustrophobic but later quite sheltering – womb-like, is presumably what they were going for – soundscape, draws the viewer into the subjective view of the scientists. The aliens are rather cephalopod-like and their vocal language owes a great deal to their Earth bound equivalents. A kind of alien whale song that presumes that the gaseous environment that they inhabit would work like water does for sound here on Earth. (A small niggle, our vocalisations, designed for Earth’s atmosphere, and should surely therefore be as incomprehensible to them as their language is to us?) Strange, yet believably, organically so. The soundscape around them feels, rich and complex, yet spare and subtle. It envelops us yet never overwhelms, in a film so much about language it is necessary that there is enough space given to the dialogue and it manages that with such deftness that you barely notice it – a sure sign of the skill of the sound team if ever I saw one.
A related, but arguably odd observation I couldn’t help but make is that the sound felt French. I spent a lot of time expecting people to break into French. I’m not sure quite how to explain why it felt French, given that I didn’t realise that it was directed by Denis Villeneuve going in – and he’s French Canadian anyway – but I wasn’t remotely surprised when I watched the sound credits and saw all those French names scrolling by. Perhaps it was the restrained yet passionate performances from the cast. Perhaps it’s just that film like this could only have worked being filtered through a bilingual director’s vision. Whatever the reason, the film feels like its being experienced through the filter of a language you’re almost fluent in but not quite. A gorgeously alienating experience. The film in general feels like it should be a much smaller film than it is, having the general ambience of a mid-budget sci-fi film – one big enough to afford decent CGI but small enough to actually be about something. It feels like the kind of film you see by accident or have to hunt down one of the only three screenings it gets anywhere near you. (The closest film to it in terms of atmosphere, that I can think of, is the Korean monster movie The Host/Gwoemul (Joon Ho Bong, 2006) which has the most organic use of CGI I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.) Not the kind of thing that will be showing every night for a week and the usher will tell that they’re extending the run for because its been so popular. It’s a rare gem of a film and I’m glad that it’s getting a wide distribution because it absolutely deserves to be seen widely; I’m just a little surprised.