Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 11/11/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 10, 2016
Surely, our better natures would triumph when confronted with a singular event such as the one presented in Arrival. Evidence of the existence of other life-forms besides our own in the universe would unite us as a species across the globe in a way that has never before happened. That is the thinking of some of the greatest minds on our planet, or at least, it is their greatest or, perhaps, only hope for the basic survival of the human race.
Eric Heisserer's screenplay for the film doesn't have that same optimistic outlook. It imagines that we would keep squabbling amongst ourselves, based on national and political boundaries, and that those in fear of this now-known "other" would dominate the conversation about the alien visitors, before anyone knew what these creatures wanted or if they even understood the concept of desire.
How far from reality is this hypothetical scenario? It doesn't seem too far removed, which makes the film's ultimate deus ex machina of a finale even sadder than it is within the context of the film.
The conclusion here relies on something that breaks down our understanding of a concept as seemingly straightforward and unalterable as time. Heisserer (adapting the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang) uses the conceit in a way that adds an additional layer of tragedy to the protagonist's story. Looking at the bigger picture, though, it also puts a depressing, additionally tragic layer on the broader story of humanity being told here. It is only through the power of some inexplicable, preternatural development that anything is resolved. This is not an optimistic view of human nature, although it is only indirectly so.
The story opens with a haunting prologue, tracking Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, giving a performance that effortlessly works on multiple levels, considering where the material takes this characters), a well-renowned linguist, through her life as a mother to her daughter. Director Denis Villeneuve jumps back and forth through time in the section, as Louise waxes philosophical on the subject of memory. It ends with the striking juxtaposition of our protagonist tucking her daughter in for bed, a few years later, and raising the sheet of a hospital bed over her daughter's body.
In the present day, Louise teaches language at a college. One student asks her to put on the news. A dozen alien ships—giant vessels of a convex shape that look as if they are made of black granite—are hovering over different points across the globe. There is no rhyme or reason to their placement. People are panicking.
Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) of the U.S. Army visits Louise with audio of an attempt to communicate with the creatures aboard the ship floating above a valley in Wyoming. She can make no sense of the strange sounds coming from the recording. After some convincing, Louise is brought to the site of the alien craft, along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). The goal is to get an answer to a single question from the aliens: What is your purpose on Earth?
The build-up to the first encounter between the research team and the aliens is a sequence of great tension and anticipation—a series of shots of the team's preparation in hazmat suits, the drive to the vessel, the team being elevated to the ship, Ian brushing his hand against its rough exterior until the camera moves back to find a darker space. It culminates in a dizzying scene of the team entering the ship by leaping upward, only to be thrown by shift in gravity against the side of a long drop, which, from this perspective, is a long hallway. At the end of it is a rectangular section of bright, white light. It begins to fill with an ominous, gray smoke.
As for the aliens, they are seven-legged, squid-like entities that receive the name "heptopods." There's a pair of them (which Ian dubs Abbott and Costello), and Louise almost immediately learns that they have as little understanding of human languages as humans have of their own language. She breaks down the difficulty of asking that single, vital question about their purpose. Do they understand the words and their meaning? Do they even comprehend the concept of a question?
Here, the idea of communication extends beyond the aliens, whose language is written using semi-circular designs using inky fluid emitted from their tentacles. Communication—especially the difficulty of it—is the film's central thematic thrust. In the makeshift Army headquarters a few miles from the ship, there are video monitors of researchers from across the world, all of them attempting to find their own ways of getting the answer to that question from the aliens near them.
Each team from each country has its own strategy. Some have played the aliens' own sounds back to them. A few, we learn, have started to use games such as chess to "talk" to the aliens. Here, with the games, the communication becomes one of victory and defeat—winning and losing.
It's not only what's said that matters (although it is important when it comes to a few soldiers on the base listening to a fear-mongering rant online). How something is said—how we frame it in our minds—can change the parameters of a dialogue (Louise and Ian discuss a theory that the language one uses can have an effect on the way a person thinks). This matters when trying to determine if an alien symbol means "weapon" or "tool." A CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) is convinced of the former interpretation, and how a Chinese general (Tzi Ma) interprets that symbol becomes the crux of the drama in the third act.
That is also where the film takes something of a sharp turn into new thematic territory. It's established well enough in the prologue and by means of flashbacks throughout the story, so it's not as jarring in the moment as it seems in retrospect. What's important, though, is how Villeneuve, Heisserer, and Adams uncover an emotional layer behind the bevy of big ideas at the forefront for most of Arrival. Then again, maybe it's not so far removed from what comes before it, considering that it's about the necessity to say what needs to be said when it counts. When time is meaningless, it always counts.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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