Reviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 11/10/16 03:19:14

"Language is a virus from outer space"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Hardcore science-fiction fans —the ones who grew up reading the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, among others, and who OD’d on Gene Rodenberry’s vision of a better future in the original “Star Trek” series— should consider themselves lucky. After decades of enduring one hostile invasion after another in the big and small screens, they have recently been rewarded with the likes of “Gravity” (2013), “Interstellar” (2014), “The Martian” (2015) and, now, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” These are films that deal with big ideas while delivering thrills of one sort of another: ideas about our place in the universe; about memory, grief and longing; about mathematical concepts, even language. Not all are perfect. “Gravity” is, in essence, “Perils of Pauline” in outer space. And “Interstellar” almost flies off its rails with a ludicrous third act reveal involving Matt Damon in what now looks like a dress rehearsal for “The Martian." Yet, they all shared something I wished the far more austere and cerebral “Arrival” had a bit more of: a sense of wonder. Even so, Villeneuve’s first science-fiction film (he is currently filming a sequel to “Blade Runner”) is ambitious. It’s that rare film where every single element, from the ensemble acting to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautifully chilly and melancholic score and Bradford Young’s muted cinematography, comes together seamlessly. It relies very little on CGI or any other extravagant special effect to tell its story. It’s more grounded, earthier, the action and spectacle kept off-camera, in the background. It’s about connection and interaction, even when those connections are filtered through dozens of television and computer monitors.

Twelve contact-lens shaped black spaceships have positioned themselves in different parts of the globe; unlike past first encounters, these ships have chosen the unlikeliest of places and countries (among them Venezuela and the state of Montana) to make their presence known. We never see them arrive, we find out by other means. Apparently mourning the death of her only daughter (and I say apparently because that memory and the grief surrounding it will play a vital role in the film’s denouement), linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) arrives to work one day to find herself surrounded by frantic activity and a barely empty classroom. She is not aware of what’s happening until one of her students asks her to turn the classroom TV. The campus is soon evacuated and days later she receives a visit from Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) who recruits her and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out the aliens’ reason for visiting our planet. What do they want? Are they hostile?
Louise’s demands to get up close and personal with the visitors are granted.

After several attempts at communicating with these Heptapods, the scientific name they are eventually given and whom she and Ian name Abbott and Costello, she discovers that the written language is their actual form of communication and not the grunts emanating from their bodies. They use their tentacle-like hands to sketch inky circles in thin air. As Louise and her fellow scientists begin to build a vocabulary around these circles, the world goes to hell in a hand basket as the Chinese and the Russian governments decide to take aggressive action against the visitors. The United States breaks contact and stops sharing information with the remaining nine countries after one of these circles is interpreted as the word for “weapon.” A race against time begins but not in the traditional frantic Hollywood ticking clock style we are used to. In fact, time itself becomes a key player in the film’s third act as Louise realizes that theirs and our perception of time plays a vital role in understanding their language.

Throughout the film, Villeneuve and scriptwriter Eric Heisseler (adapting Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life”) sprinkle Louise’s memories of daughter Hannah at different stages of her life, seeming to suggest that the aliens are tapping into Louise’s consciousness and that these memories contain clues to her linguistic conundrum. Just when you think these flashbacks will veer the film into hokey territory, Villeneuve and Heisseler turn the tables on us in a way that is both surprising and head-scratching (in a good way). It’s, to paraphrase a certain Time Lord, incredibly timey-wimey.

Villeneuve seamlessly combines every single DNA strand of the alien encounter genre to deliver something that, if not altogether new, defies our expectations. The peaceful alien visitor from the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” who brought a peaceful warning to the United States is now several non-English speaking entities that address the globe as a whole (although, in the great tradition of American exceptionalism, their language is deciphered by American scientists). Encased behind a transparent enclosure, the Heptapods reminded me of the far creepier and hostile 456, the strange aliens who took over every single child’s mind in the BBC miniseries “Torchwood: Children of Earth.” And Louise’s grief is no different than astronaut Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) in “Gravity.” Like them, “Arrival” is really about human nature, about how we react when faced with the extraordinary, about the need for dialogue and connection. It is also, when compared to science-fiction films and TV series past, present and future, a necessary corrective, one that taps into our fears of the unknown and shows how, more often than not, those fears are unfounded. Fears that are no different than the ones certain politicians and leaders have based their ideologies and platforms on. Indeed, “Arrival,” like the best works of science-fiction, holds a mirror to our current foibles.

Like Villeneuve’s previous film, “Sicario,” “Arrival” centers around a woman’s actions in a male-dominated environment. But while in “Sicario,” the character played by Emily Blunt was at times an almost passive witness to the underside of a ruthless and bloody war against the drug cartels, Louise is a far more active participant. Ian, in fact, ends up being her sidekick, contributing very little to the proceedings. The men that surround Louise, the ones calling the shots, are itchy and irrational creatures acting out of fear; they find it easier to respond aggressively rather than rationally. Louise is the voice of reason, the calm eye in the middle of a fear-driven storm. A cliché? Absolutely, but one that works extremely well here. Louise is no different than Jodie Foster’s astronomer in Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact”: driven, curious, determined, haunted. And Amy Adams, currently our most versatile and instinctive actress, plays her with subtlety and a certain doggedness mixed with a good dose of melancholy.

Compared to some of its action-driven predecessors, “Arrival” may feel a tad underwhelming to some. Much like the Saper-Whorf hypothesis the film quotes, it requires audiences to adapt to its own unique frequency, to learn and “speak” a cinematic language that may be alien to them. “Arrival” is worth the effort for no other reason that it is commercial filmmaking of the highest caliber, even when it appeals more to the brain and the sense and not the heart.

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