“People are really hungering for intelligent sci-fi”
People are really hungering for intelligent sci-fi,” says Dan Levine, producer of first contact tale Arrival. “We’ve had Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian. It seems every year there is that one film that really pushes the boundaries. And as huge fans of sci-fi we’re just thrilled to be in that conversation.”
Conversation? It’s an illuminating choice of word. Arrival is all about conversation: language, communication, meaning. And that’s a rare thing, given first dates between mankind and extra-terrestrials rarely end well on the big screen. While other alien encounter movies revel in death ray diplomacy and tactical nuclear trash talk, leaping to DEFCON 1 at the speed of a Roland Emmerich adrenaline surge, Arrival asks “Why can’t we just put our action sequences aside and listen to one another?”
It’s an uncompromisingly smart film, inspired by an equally cerebral short story – Ted Chiang’s 1998 tale “Story Of Your Life”, which won both a Nebula and a Theodore Sturgeon award.
“We had never read a story like it,” says Levine, who discovered Chiang’s tale in a collection of his short fiction. “On the surface it had a really strong sci-fi concept – what would happen if aliens came to the Earth? How would the Earth react? – but it treated it in a documentary style way. At its core it had an incredibly moving story of a mother and her
daughter. It was just so rare to see such a high concept grounded with such emotion.”
It’s also a story concerned with linguistic relativity and cognitive determinism – concepts rarely served as a dip option with your Cineworld nachos. The filmmakers knew they needed to transform Chiang’s brainy parable into something not just accessible but cinematic, too. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis isn’t exactly box office.
“It was an incredible challenge,” says Levine, part of the production company behind recent Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things. “I have to give so much credit to our screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, who worked with us tirelessly, draft after draft after draft, trying to open up the story. We had that really strong emotional core but there wasn’t much else to the story. We had to build up around that, and it took multiple drafts to get it right.” firstcontact Brought to the screen by Denis Villeneuve
(Sicario, Prisoners, next year’s Blade Runner 2049), Arrival opens with a dozen alien craft touching down around the globe. They perch on the horizon like giant, cloud-wreathed eggs, ominous and unknowable. Fighter jets scramble, YouTube melts and the US government throws in a squad of boffins at the Montana landing site. Included in the team is Amy Adams as expert linguist Louise Banks. Haunted by memories of her late daughter, she must attempt to communicate with the otherworldly guests while the world quivers on the blade-edge of war.
As fellow producer Aaron Ryder tells SFX, Villeneuve’s skill-set as a director was crucial to the project.
“One of the things that was important in the short story was its sense of realism. It doesn’t rely on too many movie tropes. And Denis didn’t really see this as an alien invasion movie – more an alien arrival movie. What would be the protocols that were in place? How would they be implemented? How would people react? What would the government be doing? What would the news organisations be saying? That was the tone and the texture, which is established right upfront.
“And that’s something Denis has at the forefront of his decisions,” Ryder continues. “When people watch the movie one of the things they respond to is that it feels so real and so tense, and that’s what Denis does very, very well. He amplifies that tension better than just about any working director out there.”
“The thing we always marvelled about with Denis is that he’s the kind of director that can put you on the edge of your seat but can also bring tears to your eyes,” adds Levine. “You just don’t see that in movies these days. It’s usually one or the other.”
Just as exceptionally, Arrival engages in a slow dance with the unknown. It’s a film that thrums with a steadily building sense of awe, pacing its reveals so that the audience experiences first contact alongside the film’s protagonists. You won’t see its alien visitors blown in the trailers or splurged in the marketing. “Everyone got it,” says Ryder. “Everyone wanted a sense of wonder preserved.”
Villeneuve hired artist Carlos Huante to help conceptualise the creatures’ appearance. Inspired by everything from whales to spiders, octopuses to elephants, he sought an alien visual that had never been seen on the screen.
“You have to keep in mind that we’re working in a pretty well-worn genre,” admits Ryder. “And if you’re creating spaceships and aliens you really don’t want to have anything be familiar. We spent a fair bit of time discussing what these aliens and these ships would ultimately look like.”
“The short story had a description of the aliens that we departed from,” Levine tells SFX. “Denis and Carlos deserve all the credit. They had to create a CG creation that our cast could
I think that the chaos the film shows is accurate
act with, could react to. It’s a real character in the movie and to give a sense of soul and weight and presence to it was such an incredible win for us. We’d seen so many great films where when you finally get to see the alien it’s a disappointment. We really wanted to avoid that.”
facing the unknown
Amy Adams is the beating heart of Arrival, as Ryder acknowledges. “One of the appeals of the short story and what we loved about the script – and why I think we got someone of Amy’s calibre – is that it’s rare to see such a strong female lead in a story like this. Just to see that point of view amidst all the noise and chaos of what’s going on in the world… She has the ability and strength to stay calm and focused, to communicate with the aliens. And she has such an incredibly expressive face. That was one of the challenges – having an actress you could see relating to an alien that obviously wasn’t really there when we were shooting. Every day on set we were thankful that she was in the film.”
Paired with Adams is Jeremy Renner as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly. Given Renner’s best known for such bicep-flexing fare as the Bourne, Mission: Impossible and
Avengers franchises, did it feel like counterintuitive casting?
“Yes and no,” says Levine. “He can’t look like a musclebound action star and still be believable as a physicist. At the same time he has to have a physicality to him and be a movie star. This movie’s going to remind people what an incredibly strong dramatic actor Jeremy is. His performance sneaks up on you. He’s a quiet presence in the movie but he gains such emotional velocity throughout the story that it just hits you so hard in the end.” Levine and Ryder cite Spielberg’s Close
Encounters Of The Third Kind as a touchstone inspiration. But that was 1977 – this is 2016 and hyper-caffeinated, pixel-drenched armageddon is the default setting of science fiction cinema. How did such a fiercely thoughtful film as Arrival ever make it to the screen intact? Surely there was pressure to make it more multiplex-palatable, to dial down the linguistic theory and crank up the tracer fire?
“It was a long process to get this film made,” Levine confesses. “Our goal every step of the way was to protect Denis and this beautiful movie. And yes, there were definitely times when we expected – and got – that pressure. But the beauty of the film won out over any conversations like, ‘Well, we don’t have a big alien attack action sequence,’ or ‘It’s too challenging for audiences.’ I think that after the summer audiences are thirsting for something challenging.”
“And let’s be honest,” says Ryder, “when it comes to movies like this one, where it’s intellectually challenging to some degree, there’s always going to be a push and pull between the filmmakers and the people that have to get this movie out there to the masses. And that push and pull usually results in a better film, because you have something that is equally balanced – commercially minded and at the same time elegant and sophisticated.”
And is this how a real life first contact would play out? “I often think about this,” laughs Ryder. “Aaron is actually currently living in a bunker underneath his house, where he spends most of his time in fear…” “Some call it crazy. Others call it prepared!” Ryder considers the question more seriously. “I think that the chaos the film shows is accurate. People would panic. People wouldn’t go to work. They’d be glued to their TVs. What we really tried to accomplish with this film is ask, ‘Why are they here?’ Every movie skips over that and goes straight to them wanting to destroy us. That was the part of the movie we wanted to live in. What is that moment? Who would talk to them? How would we find out what they want?”
Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner attempt to understand the aliens.
Amy Adams plays a linguist haunted by the death of her daughter.