The Lovecraftian themes in “Arrival”: a review (very mild spoilers)

This review is by Charley Brady.

Shadows Out of Space and Time: Arrival

Yesterday evening – a miserable and rainy night – I bought a ticket for a film that I was seeing cold. I knew little about it other than that it starred Amy Adams and was a science-fiction film on the theme of First Contact.

I’m sure that thirty minutes later, if someone had taken a photo of me, it would have been an image of a dopey-looking man sitting there with his mouth open, maybe with a little drool coming from the corner. For it is a long time – a very long time – since I have been so thoroughly surprised by, then enthusiastic about, and finally in love with a piece of cinema than I am with Arrival.

Both as a regular filmgoer and as an admirer these past forty-five years of H. P. Lovecraft, I suddenly knew that I was seeing something special.

This film deserves to be reviewed in depth, with plot points covered in detail and after at least two viewings, because it is the kind of work that will assuredly yield more each time. However, for the purposes of this article I’m going to keep the story outline brief in order to avoid ruining the delightful surprises that the first-time viewer is in for.

The simple fact is that I want anyone who has an interest in Providence’s Pale Prince to see this extraordinary work, one which is fairly drenched with his images.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams at the very top of her game) is an expert linguist who has previously helped the United States military — somewhat unhappily, it is hinted. So when U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) gives her the opportunity to do more work for them, it is something that she sees as a double-edged sword. Yet how can she turn down the chance to be involved in one of the greatest events in human history? For she is being asked for nothing less than to translate the language of alien creatures that have landed on earth.

Flying into R’lyeh

Across the globe twelve enormous pod-like craft have arrived at various destinations and are hovering silently. Given the name of ‘Shells’ by the army, as Louise and the theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) get their first site of the alien vessels my early intimations that we were entering Lovecraft country came as I realized that what we were being shown wasn’t a perfect oval, but rather a seemingly distorted edifice that the eye almost strains to correct into the shape that the mind demands that it be.

But if I had suspicions that director Denis Villeneuve was being consciously or unconsciously influenced by HPL then those doubts vanished when the investigating team of soldiers and scientists boarded the ship.

As each member moves through a change in gravity it appears that they are flying into a realm where the laws of physics seem to be changed. They’re not; it’s just that these laws are being applied differently. And the end result – because they are grounded in a vivid and believable reality – is far more impressive than the much-lauded mind bending shots in the recent Doctor Strange.

Here indeed is what Wilcox hinted at in “The Call of Cthulhu” when he spoke of his dream- geometry being abnormal and non-Euclidean.

In the feeling of strangeness, eeriness and sense of anticipation as we approach the aliens for the first time, I found it impossible not to recall the doom-laden journey of Johansen and his men in that same story. The atmospheric foreboding; the almost tangible steeling of the nerves; and the soundtrack itself — these combine to make the viewer as taught when the scientists approach the clear separating partition in the Shield as the reader is when the sailors of the Emma approach the vast tomb-door in R’lyeh.

Starfish-shaped Dreams

After that, the crowning touch is nothing less than the alien visitors themselves; and here I feel on safe enough ground by introducing them, as Villeneuve and his screenwriter make the wise decision to get this crucial moment out of the way in the first twenty-five minutes or so.

If I tell you that what comes towards us at first seems like enormous black walking fists that gradually come into clarity as Cephalopod-like creatures with ‘arms/tentacles’ arranged in a radial pattern, can you imagine my shocked pleasure?

And if I then tell you that when one of the entities raises an ‘arm’, it unfurls from the end of it nothing less than a starfish-shaped appendage, I’m sure that you can understand me when I say I thought that I had died and gone to Arkham?

So: utterly, utterly alien, then. None of your unlikely Star Trek-type bipeds – pure, unadulterated Lovecraftian alien otherness.

They want something from us, although what that is remains unclear. Hence the anxiousness of governments all over the world to have their own particular teams learn to communicate with them.

These creatures are as much scientists as Ian Donnelly is…or as the Old Ones of “At the Mountains of Madness” were. Indeed, when we see them in their entirety they are more than reminiscent not only of the Old Ones but with a suggestion of The Great Race from “The Shadow out of Time” – which, for reasons I’ll leave you to discover for yourself, is rather appropriate. Time itself plays a part here, as events become non-linear with the dreams Louise has of a young girl, told in flashbacks that draw the viewer towards an astonishing conclusion.

Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,’ quotes Ian from a book that Louise has written on her subject. And language is crucial to this film in so many different ways. We even see how Louise can use the supposed explanation for a simple word like ‘kangaroo’ in order to gain a reprieve and give herself time to solve the puzzle she has in front of her.

And of course there is the irony in the fact that even whilst China, Britain, Russia, the U.S.A., France and other countries struggle to cross the language barrier with the extraterrestrials, that they begin to refuse to share information with each other; and even finally break off communications completely.

The struggles of Louise to find common ground with the visitors finally helped me personally to reconciliation with what I always found to be a major stumbling block in “At the Mountains of Madness”: the rapid reading of what were, after all, alien hieroglyphics in an eons-old structure. I’ve always had a problem with that. After seeing Arrival, whilst it would still be an issue for me, I can allow myself some adjusts now. (Although God forbid I should give the impression that I’m some sort of anal-retentive, obsessive weirdo. Well…I mean, I am; but don’t let that put you off this review.)

I’ve seen two other of Villeneuve’s films, both of which made a huge impact on me and which are very different to each other: Prisoners, which will draw you into a moral quandary; and Enemy, which is puzzling, enigmatic and quite wonderful. But neither is on the sheer level of brilliance that Arrival is. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what is, that is interesting?

The screenplay is by Eric Heisserer, adapted from a short story called Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

The subtle and weirdly effective music is by Johann Jóhannsson; and, sure, it’s a different spelling but don’t tell me that this guy isn’t related to the brave Mate Johansen!

I hope that this brief look at Arrival whets the appetite of all Lovecraft-heads out there. I really don’t know how any enthusiast could come away less than ecstatic. And although there is a feeling of optimism that one wouldn’t associate with his work, there is an underlying sense of pain and loss that almost bleeds and seeps from the sides of the screen. I look forward to seeing it again.

This review is by Charley Brady.

One response to “The Lovecraftian themes in “Arrival”: a review (very mild spoilers)

  1. CtPaul — Many thanks for that. I’m sorry that your visit wasn’t the rush of blood to the brain that mine was. Of course, that may say more about the state of my brain!
    I was fortunate in having heard next to nothing about it, down to STILL not having clicked on the trailer yet (and now you have me afraid to!). Of course, all Art — and that’s what I would consider this film – is subjective but I hope that a second look may change your mind just a bit.

    Have to say that I like your comment on seeing without preconceived notions what you’ve already seen — kind of ties in with the film, don’t you think…?

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