The New York Times has enlisted director Denis Villeneuve to narrate one of the most striking scenes from his meditation on time, loss, and spaceships, Arrival. (Though the words “one of the most striking scenes” likely bring up…every damn scene in this movie). Here, he speaks over the scene where Amy Adams’ alien-language-translating-genius-linguist character Louise first makes hand-to-alien-equivalent-of-hand contact (through glass). I won’t say exactly what that hand-equivalent is, for fear of spoiling it for people who haven’t seen the movie yet; but those people should also be warned against watching the following clip.
In said clip, Villeneuve discusses how he spent most of his art department budget on avoiding using a greenscreen to depict the chamber inside the alien spacecraft in which the humans and aliens have their tête-à-têtes (or tête-à-something-elses). He emphasizes the importance of creating an environment (which he tells the Times was inspired by James Turrell) that the actors could actually respond to, and whose oddness they could actually feel. It clearly paid off: the film succeeds largely because of its minimalism and specificity — the time it takes on small things like texture and perspective to depict, well, the alienness of the alien spacecraft without the cheesy flashiness most filmic interpretations of UFOs rely on.
Also very noteworthy is the way Villeneuve manages to make the reveal of the aliens bodies emotionally mysterious — in that it’s hard to know fully whether to feel deeply afraid, or deeply heart-warmed, or both. In other words, the feelings they evoke are alien in their complexity. He thus describes having wanted to use the design of the chamber in a way that would reveal the aliens “a bit like a very, very slow strip tease.”
Watch (but again, do not watch if you don’t want light spoilers about what’s on the other side of that strip tease):