By Sudhir Srinivasan

Cinema is beautiful for how it allows us to safely experience the dangerous lives of many. In that sense, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival has provided me with perhaps the best vicarious experience I’ve had in a movie theatre for a long time now. It shows exactly how an average person will likely react to an UFO in the neighbourhood, how they will feel when approaching an alien. As Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in a sensationally understated and effective portrayal of a linguist) stands dwarfed by the towering egg-shaped UFO, as she sweats and turns breathless at the prospect of stepping into this unknown vehicle to encounter unfamiliar beings, the music lowers into a deep, pulsating rumble. It’s impossible for you not to be breathless at the prospect too. You realise at that moment that this is exactly how an encounter with an alien would likely be. You wouldn’t rush at it with excitement. You wouldn’t cower from it in fear. You’d take tentative, cautious steps of curiosity, all the while unable to reconcile with the reality of it all. The closest we will likely come to touching an alien spacecraft in our lives is when Dr. Banks hesitantly places her trembling fingers on the underbelly of the vehicle. Those moments are alone worth the admission price.

The usual narrative in these films is one of hostility and war. It’s us versus them. It’s of global unity in the face of an external threat. Arrivalis about unity too, but it attempts to bring this positive ending without reducing the other to a destructive villain prototype. Far too often, in the usual films, there is little, if any, effort at establishing communication with the invaders. To be fair, it’s dreadfully difficult to communicate with those who don’t talk our language, let alone whose very definition of language is unrelatable. As Dr. Banks shows in the film, what we deem to be a simple sentence—lines we effortlessly, instinctively use in everyday conversation—are a result of our having assimilated complex linguistic ideas. You’d have to teach an alien these concepts. You’d have to understand theirs. And in any case, how do you communicate to another being when their writing isn’t based on phonetics? Even as you read these sentences, you read them aloud in your head and make sense of them. What if these letters, these sentences, are merely pictures that attempt to convey meaning? What if they didn’t have associations with sound? Arrivalmakes you reflect on these concepts till you develop a minor headache.

Villeneuve’s film, based on a short story by American sci-fi writer, Ted Chiang, is about the complexities of language. It also, as a side-note, portrays how the world would typically react to such an invasion. Countries wouldn’t immediately unite in a saccharine display of solidarity. Some would want to lead, some would want to follow. Some would want to attack, some others would want to wait. It’d just be… complex. If you are the sort to have long, unwinded conversations about films well after they are over, you’ll find plenty to talk about after Arrival. It even posits that your skills could well be determined by the language you speak. As Banks says, “Learning a new language rewires your brain.” In fact, I’d have loved to learn the deep intricacies of how Banks eventually makes sense of the alien language, how she manages to make them understand hers. It’d perhaps have been too dry for many… for those who, no doubt, will read that the film is about an alien invasion, and expect to see explosive aerial battle sequences. The explosions here are of the mental variety.

I’d have loved to discuss the big twist at the end in great detail, but let’s just say I ended up wishing that the film were a drama centred on that twist. I’d not have missed much, had the film been devoid of the red herring that the potential alien attack is. If you really wanted to nit-pick, I guess you could say that Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker don’t particularly have too much to do. But take nothing away from Arrival, one of those rare thoughtful mainstream films. As the film ended, I couldn’t but laugh at the cheekiness and the irony of the opening line that in hindsight, gives away the end: I thought the story began here, but this was the end. Go figure.

Source: The Hindu, NOVEMBER 25, 2016 19:14 IST


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