Uri Klein Nov 26, 2016 2:51 AM
Offering a different take on the aliens-invade-Earth theme in sci-fi movies, this film considers the power of language to transform reality and suggests that we reconsider our conception of time. Twelve spacecraft land randomly in 12 different countries, including Russia, China, Pakistan and the United States. These are not broad-winged metallic vessels of the type we’ve become used to in science fiction movies. They are tall, black, sealed and elliptical, and they hover slightly above the ground. Similarly, the pair of aliens that emerge from the spaceship that lands in the United States are not what we’re accustomed to. They are vague of form. For much of “Arrival,” the new film by the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, we see only their lower parts. Each has seven hand-like legs, and we complete their appearance in our imagination. Villeneuve, who has made a successful transition to Hollywood, gradually reveals their whole form, which both confirms what we supposed and also surprises us.
The panic and paranoia triggered by the arrival of the 12 mysterious spaceships across the world – stock markets plummet, the threat of war looms – are duly taken note of in the film. But because this is an American production, the plot (as in previous movies about aliens invading Earth) – based on “Story of Your Life,” a short science fiction story by Ted Chiang – focuses on the spaceship that lands in the United States, in Montana. The depiction of the subsequent events evokes the message the picture carries and its broad implications in the realms of language, space and time.
Villeneuve’s aimed to make a moderate, meditative sci-fi movie. Just as the spaceship and the aliens who emerge from it are different from what we usually expect, the movie itself also differs from most pictures that address this situation. In other words, we do not see the White House disintegrating or other scenes of mass spectacle. Apart from the prologue, almost the whole film is set in and around the spaceship, according it the heft of an adventure that combines surprising intimacy with severity.
Almost from the outset, it’s clear that the spaceships do not represent a threat. What, then, is the purpose of their dramatic visit? The answer to that question, which propels the plot, entails communicating with the aliens. To that end, it is necessary for humanity to understand their language and for them to understand our language (namely, English, the only operative lingo). Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), the U.S. Army officer assigned to deal with the event, brings in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a world-renowned linguist who, as we learn from the prologue, is divorced and whose teenage daughter died from cancer. Louise, in turn, recruits a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to assist her.
Past, present and future
The most riveting parts of the movie take place in a part of the spaceship that looks like a shelter made of rough concrete, at one end of which is a transparent divider that separates Louise and Ian from the two aliens, whom Ian nicknames “Abbot and Costello.” Like the film itself, Louise believes in the power of language to create and transform reality. She tries to teach the aliens English, while the aliens communicate with her and Ian in their language, which is visual and consists mainly of circles that often recall smoke rings, though instead of smoke the rings, which barely change form, seem to be made of ink.
The process at the end of which Louise and Ian and the aliens are able to communicate with one another takes considerable time, or at least would necessarily take considerable time – and if Villeneuve’s movie has one major fault, it’s that this sense of time passing isn’t felt by the viewer. Conversely, that argument may be irrelevant, because one of the goals of the story in “Arrival” is to portray as mistaken the concept of time with which we are familiar. Past, present and future intermingle gradually as the film reaches its climax, and to tell the truth, the more the picture enters these realms in the plot’s conceptual approach, the more complicated it becomes, but it is also less interesting.
Indeed, the storyline of “Arrival” – script by Eric Heisserer – is rife with disparities whose purpose is perhaps to heighten the movie’s abstract character. However, I found that they had the effect of limiting it, not least because here and there the plot tends toward formulaic genre types, such as the presence of a hostile CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the danger that China and Russia will foment a world war. The parts of the movie that I found most interesting and most enjoyable were those depicting Louise’s growing involvement in the adventure, thanks in no small measure to the performance of Amy Adams. Her restrained acting style succeeds in expressing wellsprings of emotion and thought, and Adams shows impressive skill in portraying their evolution from fright to enthusiasm.
Despite the reservations I’ve mentioned, “Arrival” is a worthy, serious work of cinema that, taken together with Villeneuve’s two previous films, “Sicario” and “Prisoners,” shows him to be one of the most talented and interesting directors working today. He is currently shooting the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie “Blade Runner.” Along with the other devotees of that picture, which was a box-office failure upon its release but subsequently acquired cult status, thanks in part to changes Scott made in its structure, I await that 2017 release eagerly. Villeneuve, who thus remains in the realm of the futuristic, has an artist’s touch, and the future of American cinema definitely includes his arrival.
Arrival Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Eric Heisserer; with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg