- Movie Rating -

Arrival (2016)

| April 24, 2017

We have probably all thought about it at one time or another.   What would it be like if (or should I invoke the glass half-full and say when) we are finally visited by an intelligent species from another world?  What would be gained once we stopped rattling the sabers and let the brain trust have a crack at trying to figure out why they’re here?  What do we say?  What’s our plan of action?  Who ya gonna call?

Arrival is hell-bent on exploring those questions.  It is a brainy pebble in a big pond of idiotic naysayers.  There are alien invasion pictures of every size and shape nowadays and nearly all deal with interstellar visitors whose mission is to liquefy our skyscrapers first and our brains later.  Visitation by aliens, in reality, would be such an awesome globe-shifting event that almost any outcome is possible.  In that, narrowing such a probable event down to blowing up historical landmarks is an irredeemably bone-headed through-line that I’ve never been able to work up much excitement for.  Thankfully Arrival puts its brains ahead of its laser cannons.  You can have your Independence Day and your Battleship and your Transformers quacking nonsense, but I prefer something that reaches rather than swats.  Such films are sadly rare.

Arrival begins with the arrival (!) of 12 black Pringle-shaped spacecraft that have descended on our planet in 12 different locations.  Where they come from is a mystery.  Why they’re here is an even bigger mystery.  What is clear is that they want to communicate with us, and the forward trajectory of the film is bridging that gap.  Not satisfied to remain ominous, the alien spacecraft offers an opening through which our best linguistic experts (and, of course, heavily armed military personnel) can climb aboard and attempt to make contact.

The linguistic expert in question is the sad-eyed Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who teaches at a University but whose home life is an order of domestic desolation and loneliness.  There are long pauses in her life and in her tranquility that leave us wonder if something else isn’t occupying her mind.  Frequently there are impressionistic flashes to another home life in which Louise once seems to have had a child, born and then raised to pre-pubescence before exiting Louise’s life in the worst way possible.  I’m being vague here for a reason.

Shortly after the arrival of the spacecraft, the Army sends Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to Louise’s door to offer her a chance to try and use her special communicative skills to try and make contact with the aliens – called Heptapods.  Reluctantly, she agrees, and what follows are a series of sessions in which she and the aliens try and find a connective linguistic tissue.  Louise is there to unlock the language barrier while a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) is there to unlock the science portion.

The space craft in question is currently hovering over a field in Montana (for once, it’s not New York) with an access point that opens every 18 hours, allowing an audience to be present.  The meeting is something to behold.  The aliens and their human visitors are separated by a barrier, like an aquarium.  The heptapods are strange, spidery beings with long tentacles that shoot black ink that forms a Rorschach-like coded message that our intrepid linguistics expert is charged with deciphering.

This is where we spend much of the film.  Instead of a boring old countdown clock, the greatness of the story is found in the simple act of building relations with these beings through understanding as the language barriers fall bit by bit.  The ticking clock element is provided by the ships hovering over other sites and how a few have their communication break down both with the aliens and with the other sites.  That’s a problem, especially when Louise figures out that communication between the humans at each site is vital as part of an emerging puzzle.  Everyone is nervous that one tiny miscommunication could lead to a war that humans couldn’t possibly win so the tension is always on high.  With that Arrival becomes a story, not about aliens, but about the very human cause of open lines of communication.  The story builds like a mystery with little pieces revealed here and there, cracking the code not just of alien language but of our understanding of ourselves.

If there is a weakness in this film, I think it comes in the conclusion.  I’m not giving anything away, but humanity is left with an awesome gift that transforms and recombobulates our perception of ourselves and of our ability to think and perceive.  Yet, the movie only seems to make it personal to Louise herself.  Such a thing would forever alter humanity as a whole, but I’m troubled about why we don’t see it affecting us on a mass scale.  Instead it becomes her story and the ending rushes up to a lot of questions left on the table.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, a wise Vulcan once said, so it seems slightly wrongheaded for this film to perceive otherwise.

Still even with the troubled ending, there would be no way I would dismiss such an awesome spectacle.  When so many alien visitation films dumb down their intent, this one tries to find a path to enlightenment and in many ways succeeds beautifully.  I’m reminded of the rarity of intelligent science fiction, films that expand our perception of beings from another world.  Here we are on the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and are approaching the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, films that reached higher and farther and imagined the evolutionary leaps that such an event might inevitably be heir to.  Arrival, flaws and all, belongs in the same order with those films.  There are images here that are so breathtaking that they will never leave me; there are ideas here that I am left to ponder.  I was thinking about this film’s message long after the film was over.  That’s what great science fiction does, it reaches for places we never imagined before and allows us to imagine breaking free of what we know and becoming something greater than ourselves.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2016) View IMDB Filed in: Sci-Fi/Fantasty
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