Thursday, November 24, 2016

Arrival: Soul-Stirring Sci-Fi

Arrival is an incredible movie. And I'm tempted to end the review right there because it is well-nigh impossible to explain why it is such an incredible movie without giving away all the plot points that make it so. However, let's give it a try.

Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who gets called up by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the US government when aliens land on earth and they need someone to communicate with them. When she arrives at base camp, she is partnered with astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner: insert joke here about how Renner playing an astrophysicist is the most unbelievable thing about the movie). The two of them suit up in bulky orange Hazmat suits and head on over to the spaceship to meet the aliens. And the rest of the movie proceeds as a mind-bending philosophical treatise on the nature of language and humanity.

A common gripe scientists have with science fiction movies is their insistence on rendering aliens as humanoid creatures that look a lot like us except for distorted features (think green skin, big head, and skinny limbs for your classic Martian). However, the aliens in Arrival are the weirdest things you've ever seen, a bit like a cross between an elephant and a jellyfish. And their language is impossible to describe. Louise gives up entirely on understanding them via speech as they only seem to make a series of loud booming noises. Instead, she decides to communicate via writing, and the movie painstakingly goes through her attempts to reconcile their writing system with English. If you thought English was a complicated beast of a language to master, wait till you see what these aliens have come up with. Their "writing" consists of black circles that have splotches all around to symbolize different words. They also don't express these words linearly, a fact that becomes mighty significant in the second half of the movie.

Enough about language, on to humanity. One of the odd aspects of this invasion is that there are twelve separate alien ships that have landed in distinct areas across the globe. Louise is working with the aliens who landed in rural Montana, but at the same time, there are scientists in Russia, China, Sudan, etc. who are dealing with their own set of aliens. The governments of all these nations begin by cooperating and the specialists are in constant audiovisual communication to share their findings (to a point). However, once China gets spooked by something the aliens say, they decide they've had enough of this friendly banter and it's time for war. Louise is unconvinced, insisting that the Chinese have misunderstood the creatures' intent because they were using a game of chess to understand their language instead of her more nuanced approach. When you play games, you inevitably set up themes of winners and losers and battles, which limits your vocabulary to war-like concepts. Therefore, she's in a race against time to divine the aliens' true purpose and convince the rest of humankind to choose peace over war.

None of the above hits upon what truly makes this film sad, beautiful, and mesmerizing. That lies in an aspect of Louise's personal life and something she learns from talking to the aliens. The movie's twist is poignant and heartbreaking, and while reminiscent of Interstellar, it manages to cut deep because of the empathy we have come to feel for Louise over the course of the movie. Director Denis Villeneuve is an expert at making movies that are deeply character-driven regardless of genre. All that matters to him are the people at the center of the drama, and Arrival is no exception. Amy Adams' performance is sublime, and the overall message of hope and living for the moment is one that sticks with you for a long time after you leave the theater.

Beautifully adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a spare, wondrous movie, one that purports to be science fiction about aliens but really is a meditation on human beings. It is imaginative and thought-provoking, an intellectual treat that still manages to sock you in the gut.

No comments:

Post a Comment