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A few science fiction entertainments in the last twenty-odd years have made progress for the genre in general. We've been given numerous dystopias and political warnings, along with movies like Andrew Niccol's Gattica, which people will be talking about a hundred years from now as having predicted an age of engineered humanity. There are cerebral sci-fi pictures, like Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, that manage a balance of action filmmaking and humane concern for the planet. Last Fall's hit film Arrival is even more rarified. Sure, it delivers impressive visuals of tremendous alien spacecraft, but most of the film depicts the working-out of a daunting communications puzzle. There are no spaceship battles or shape-shifting alien takeovers. We do become familiar with a formidable pair of alien creatures, and a tense standoff does end in a fierce gun battle. But all the shooting happens off screen. I'd like to see a Star Wars sequel that does some of that.
The movie deals in different kinds of transformations. In its focus on non-action revelations, Arrival is a bit like the old classic Forbidden Planet. That movie's fancy space hardware and visionary action scenes serve a story more interested in a cerebral revelation -- the creation of a telepathic Internet that destroyed an entire civilization (hmmm...). The space opera pauses for a full ten minutes to give us a lecture on an extinct species. It's all talk!
The hardware and eye candy aspect of Arrival is mostly fashioned from off-the shelf components. Earth is yet again picketed by a network of alien ships hovering over various points on the globe, a notion introduced by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel Childhood's End. That setup was
stolen borrowed for 1995's Independence Day and has been reused several times since. As in Close Encounters, experts are rounded up to communicate with the aliens, that are eventually given the name Heptapods. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are taken to a Montana site where a 1500-foot tall spaceship is suspended just a few feet off the ground. Military overseers coordinated by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) press Louise and Ian to establish contact with the aliens, to determine their intent. The Montana camp is linked with investigators in twelve other countries dealing with their own alien ships. As in Childhood's End, an inter-species meeting chamber in the ship is divided by an impenetrable window, and the aliens are partially obscured in their alien atmosphere. Ian's attempts to learn about the aliens or their ship are thwarted -- the scientists don't know what the ship is made of or how it flies or even if it communicates with its twelve counterparts around the world.
Using basic methods, Louise goes to work. Audio analysis leads nowhere, so she studies what appears to be alien 'writing' (no spoilers here) and eventually succeeds in establishing tentative communications. Despite the impatience of the military & intelligence authorities, Louise builds up a sizeable vocabulary. But then things start to go wrong. A particular alien message is ambiguous, but easily interpreted as threatening. The Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) has apparently established contact by using game logic. When he gets the same 'dangerous' message, international cooperation breaks down as the world prepares to declare war on the alien ships. And in the Montana camp, a rogue security team formulates a violent plan of its own.
-- no spoilers --
This partial synopsis omits the most important part of Arrival, which sets it apart from other sci-fi thrillers and gives it a reason to be. Ever since the 'fifties, the most effective sci-fi has been about how future technology and discoveries change not the world, but US. As Louise begins to think in the language of the alien symbols, she receives strange hallucinations, which turn out to have staggering consequences. In practical terms the story takes on elements similar to those in a time travel tale. Without getting into specifics, Arrival achieves something rare: its far-out sci-fi concept is given vital personal relevance, without becoming outright stupid. Exactly that happens far too often. The impressively mounted yet astoundingly insulting Contact sends Jodie Foster on a voyage to the end of the universe, just so she can reconcile her personal yearning to get her daddy back.
Some key dialogues raise a question few of us have thought to ask -- what is the exact power of language? Do people thinking in different languages 'think' differently? Are we English speakers fundamentally alienated from Chinese or Russian speakers by the structure of our languages? Arrival extrapolates that idea in a way that would impress both H.G. Wells and Luis Borges: an invisible, subtle rewiring of the brain effects an alteration in the mind's capabilities. Strangely enough, this narrative twist seems almost logical, It doesn't strike us as too outrageous.
I'm told that language students often experience a 'click' moment in the learning process, when they suddenly find themselves thinking in word clusters from the target languages, absorbing the concepts directly without doing any conscious translating. Louise Banks seems to achieve / experience this in Arrival. They say that learning a new language opens one to new things, and this may be what they mean. Opening up the mind, perhaps? In this case, Louise seems to be the only recipient of a Forbidden Planet Krell brain boost.
In traditional filmed sci-fi this kind of alien influence can be beneficial, but more often it's part of an invasive takeover process, built into a paranoid narrative. When the C.I.A. spooks and gun-toting soldiers insist on protecting us from what could be a massive extraterrestrial con-job Arrival is perhaps a little too conventional. But the movie isn't in the paranoid tradition, with the twelve spaceships serving as alien Trojan Horses. Nope, the men with guns are not slammed as villains.
Arrival omits ray gun battles and gory monster innards in favor of a fascinating alien encounter and the investigation of an indecipherable super-Sudoku language puzzle. The show eventually shapes up as a not-bad meditation on the way we humans relate to existence. Is Louise's transformation a simple tweaking of a few brain cells to unleash new powers? Is her new second-class demi-God status a fleeting condition that will fade without more alien contact? A single bit of dialogue may give the alien visit a Kurt Vonnegut- like motivation: if I recall correctly, in one of Vonnegut's novels an alien craft makes contact with a human not as a friendly gesture, but only so that a crippled spaceship in the far future will be able to use Earth as a pit stop.
The movie ends on a personal note that feels profound, even though it could be summarized in a sampler homily -- stop clutching to life in fear, because nothing is permanent. We learn that the aliens are mortal too. The sentiment isn't exactly "Que será, será" which too me communicates something of a passive, 'whatever' feeling. Arrival's little Zen moment says, don't opt out of life just because bad things will happen. It's a good feeling... it's not like the aliens grant Louise with the wisdom of Groundhog Day as a cosmic giveaway.
Reviewers that liken Arrival to the classic 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still still overlook that great old movie's odd bunch of 'pacifist' aliens, that claim to have conquered war yet threaten us with total annihilation. For some reason Arrival reminds me of a couple of lesser sci-fi efforts with similar visuals. The 1956 Japanese Unknown Satellite Over Tokyo gives us an alien spaceship interior with aliens that resemble a different kind of terrestrial marine life. They talk only to each other, not us humans. They do the usual trick of giving themselves a human appearance, and already seem to know our languages, which is convenient. The visuals are clunky but the movie is charming. Just the image of the muslin starfish standing around, with Japanese writing going up and down the left or right side of the screen, reminds me of Arrival.
Made a couple of years later, The Cosmic Man plays out a sub- Day the Earth Stood Still scenario, and its alien also speaks perfect English. He flies here in a rather Arrival- like spaceship. It's just a pale orb maybe eight feet in diameter that hovers motionless at the back end of the Bronson Caverns quarry. Nobody can move it, or do anything to it. It's admittedly not as impressive as a 1500-foot suppository standing upright over a misty Montana prairie. But it has the appeal of simplicity -- in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable monolith-sentinel.
Arrival is directed with simplicity and grace. It doesn't try to overwhelm us with technical complexities. Louise and Ian must camp out in a tent city while analyzing the aliens' screwball writing, which may reveal clues to their worldview / philosophy of existence. The many visuals out on the open plain, with the massive spaceship overhead, keep us from feeling claustrophobic. For all I know everything we see is a CGI environment, but director Villeneuve (the superior Sicario) maintains a human scale. The visuals aren't presented to show off new pixel-pushing toys the director got for Christmas. The CGI work appears to have been farmed out to at least eight separate digital effects firms. The movie hasn't been nominated in that category, but if it were, how would they choose the nominees?
The wide window in the communication chamber is so plain-wrap as to feel like the inside of a movie projector, with an ultra-ultra-ultra Panavision aperture plate between us and the projection lamp. The design of the aliens is better than acceptable. They at first seem like friends of H.P. Lovecraft, until they reveal their good manners by writing so beautifully. I suppose the design makes sense if these creatures live out their lives swimming in freezing liquid methane. At one point Louise appears to be swimming with them, which isn't fully explained. Arrival is good at focus -- any more detail in the ship or the aliens would detract from the communication effort.
The key to Arrival is Amy Adams, as we perceive the whole adventure through her subjective point of view. Neither a fuzzy headed sense of wonder person, nor a conquistador with an agenda, Louise Banks is an accomplished academic who lives well but alone. Her best dialogue line says something to the effect of, "You can understand communication and still end up single." Jeremy Renner serves mostly as support, and not just because the Louise-centric script makes his Ian an accessory in the greater time scheme, hint hint. We do see Ian contributing to the analysis of the alien penmanship -- the Language of the Coffee Mug Stain. But as he's not a linguist, maybe he's helping to coordinate the anonymous computer farm staffers doing Louise's grunt work.
To get a point across to Colonel Weber, Louise tells a story about a kangaroo. She says it's not true, but it reminds me of something I once saw in a museum. A vintage painting by some Spanish occupier presents labeled pictures of the racial mixtures to be found in Central America in the 1600s. There were at least twenty varieties -- pure Indios, mestizos, etc. Way down at the bottom was a thumbnail portrait of a smiling native of some kind, given the name 'noteentiendo.' In Spanish No te entiendo means, "I don't understand you." The painting is one of the few funny things I've found about the whole Spanish conquest -- the Europeans failed to figure out what these particular natives were saying, and just gave up on them.
Paramount's Blu-ray + Digital HD of Arrival retains the full impact of the theatrical experience -- yes, I saw this one back in November, after reading only the first sentence of the New Yorker review. We appreciate the gloom of the early scenes, when Louise's college shuts down over the visitation. We're also appreciative that the narrative isn't overly weighted with newsbreaks and simulated cablecast exposition -- there's just enough of that stuff. A single worried phone call from Louise's mom tells us everything we need to know about Louise's ability to handle stressful situations.
The Academy's nominating committees responded positively to the film's design and especially to its sound design. A lengthy examination of the audio can be seen in a featurette called Acoustic Signature. Other well-produced featurettes cover the language aspect (called Xenolinguistics), the music score, the editing and the philosophy of non-linear living. If Millennials really discover how to live in past and future as well as the here and now, that'll be something. Some of the producers point to odd 'inspirations' for their reorganized sci-fi ideas, but their intentions seem noble enough. A few of the explanations relating artistic choices to elevated consciousness are also a little thick. Another look at the movie reminds us that they've done good work. This is one sci-fi film with a quote-unquote 'mind bending revelation' that doesn't disappoint.
This edition has no DVD disc, but it does include a code for a digital download. Another edition gives owners of Ultra HD setups a slightly more expensive option. Director Dennis Villenueve is reportedly helming the Blade Runner sequel. Our hopes for that film went up after seeing Arrival. Villaneuve is also attached to a new version of Dune.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Arrival Blu-ray + Digital HD
Sound: Excellent English, Spanish, French
Supplements: Featurettes: Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival; Acoustic Signature; Eternal Recurrence; Nonlinear Thinking; Principles of Time, Memory & Language.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish, French (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 12, 2017
Text (c) Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson