The Art and Science of Arrival–Behind the scenes on a drama in sci-fi dress

Review by C.J. Bunce

Six years after it arrived in theaters, the 2016 eight-time Oscar nominee Arrival is getting a behind-the-scenes book in this month’s The Art and Science of Arrival.  In my review here at borg I remarked that a diehard science fiction moviegoer probably would find nothing new in the film–nearly every minute could be seen in countless episodes of science fiction television.  Arrival was in a line of many dramas cloaked in science fiction dress, like Interstellar and Gravity. Following the Michael Crichton stylebook, Arrival gave us a problem (terrifying, giant squid-like, alien monsters referred to as heptapods in derivative 2001: A Space Odyssey monoliths) and brought in a team of experts to work to solve that problem.  In my view the success of the movie was due entirely to lead actor Amy Adams, who seemed to have the Midas touch, having clocked five acting Oscar nominations at that point.  For fans of the movie, The Art and Science of Arrival provides insight into how it made the journey from the short story “The Story of Your Life” to movie, to Oscar nominee, ultimately only taking the sound editing Oscar that year.

The movie focuses on Adams as linguist Dr. Louise Banks and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, really the only brilliant scientists playing any role in a world-changing arrival of aliens.  From a storytelling angle this (and the name of the short story) telegraphs that what was happening was one of those dramas about a person dealing with a personal loss, not really an alien invasion movie.  The rest of the characters were canned, stupid government wonks, including an intermediary military officer played by Forest Whitaker and others who shouted a lot and want to bomb the aliens.  In a clunky, non-linear, back-and-forth delivery, the focus really is about a mother having to live with a daughter knowing she was dying of a terminal illness.  In my view that subject hits too close to home and is the stuff of real-life, not something I want in my escape from reality to the movie theater.  But the movie has many fans.

The best part of the movie–and the book–is delving into a component of science fiction I agree is less frequently dealt with head-on: how humans might communicate with aliens once they arrive.  Screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who also wrote the screenplay to Bloodshot, is interviewed in the book.  I don’t think the science and linguistic efforts discussed in The Art and Science of Arrival were successfully translated into the movie.  The first half of the book documents the inception of the film from the short story to its film festival path to Oscar, and the second half looks at the writer and director’s efforts to address language inside the film, followed by how it has been received, discussed, and disputed by scientists and professors.

Readers will learn in the book that producer Aaron Ryder, who hadn’t had a success since The Prestige and Donnie Darko, says in the book, “I felt like it was an underserved genre.  I don’t think we’d seen anything like this since Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It was grounded in realism, but with extraordinary events happening.”  Without naming all the science fiction that fits that description in the four decades between Close Encounters and 2016, I’ll just say this is why movies like Arrival are baffling to me.  And the “realism” in the film is the same kind of pseudoscience Erich von Däniken made famous in the 1960s.

The book has more photos of crew filming the movie than I’ve seen before.  The nature of the film means lots of Villeneuve’s own artistic style gets translated to screencaps of Adams pondering existence, staring off into the unknown page after page.  But for fans it also has what you’d expect: concept art, sketches, behind-the-scenes photography and interviews, as well as excerpts from Heisserer’s script.  Producers Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, and Aaron Ryder discuss the project always with an eye toward awards, as opposed to looking at a commercial film.

The book is a bit more in the cheerleader realm than most behind the scenes books reviewed here.  Writer Tanya Lapointe acknowledges upfront she was in a “budding” personal relationship with director Denis Villeneuve when collecting information on-set for the book, and the experience prompted her to quit journalism and work in film full time.  That translates to the fan-ish nature of the text.  Villeneuve would move on to make Blade Runner 2049 as Arrival was making its way to theaters.

In interviews in the book Villeneuve separates his view of science fiction from other filmmakers, calling their films “dirty sci-fi” while viewing his approach as “pure cinema,” which is the kind of nonsense Martin Scorsese was saying when he tried to dismiss the superhero genre.

Other bits of the book point to more head-scratching moments, like struggling how to film actors wearing an orange hazmat suit by the production, costumers, and cinematography staff.  Somebody should have pointed them to Gene Roddenberry, and Leonard Nimoy wearing the same outfit 50 years earlier on the set of Star Trek.  I’ve never read anyone from the series complain about the difficulty of that shoot.

It’s been a while since Arrival landed in theaters, but fans of any film will always welcome a look behind the scenes no matter how long it takes to get here.  The Art and Science of Arrival was made for them.  The Art and Science of Arrival is now available here at Amazon.

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